522 (CC/UC, AU, Adult, COMPLETE, 09/01/13)

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April
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Part 140

Postby April » Sun Sep 30, 2012 1:39 pm

CandyliciousLovah:
her memories at the end even brought tears to MY eyes! (That's a good thing, of course!)


Well, you know that's always what I'm striving for.

I also wonder if Isabel will ever come back, but that's just me!


Things have definitely been left pretty open-ended on the Isabel-front, so you never know.

Grace:
Isabel could take a flying leap into a toxic dump for all I care!


:lol: Nice imagery!

Michael may have to settle with sharing custody for now, because as much as Maria loves him, she doesn't trust him, and I don't blame her!


Yeah, I don't think anyone could blame her for not trusting him. But like you said, she does love him. There's still that, so there's still hope.

Ellie:
Yes, both of them need to work on the trust - Michael for cheating and Maria for her abandonment.


I agree. It's easy to say that Maria will need to learn to trust Michael again, but the reverse is also true.

I hope Tess really understands what he meant. Those two don't need to travel the path of miscommunication any further.


They've definitely come a long way, but the miscommunication is still an issue and probably always will be, to an extent, with them. Tess will understand, though. She's just sensitive and hormonal right now, so sometimes she makes a bigger deal out of things than they need to be.

Novy:
The pressure of parenthood is insane. I respect Max and Liz for understanding it and acknowledging it. I think being a parent is one of the most real ways you know you are human, because whenever you deal with kids things are never perfect or easy. I think this is a good lesson for him because it is a good way to really work at something and aim for the best. I am glad that M/L can come to that realization and cease fire for a bit.


Taking care of Garret is probably the most admirable thing Max will do in his life, but like you mentioned, it's also the hardest. Throughout this entire story, Max's life has basically been falling apart around him, and now he has the chance to put it back together . . . by putting his nephew's life back together.

It breaks my heart to see Maria hurting so much and especially hurting because of Michael. Those you love are the only ones who can cause the most pain.


Most definitely.

Ginger:
I usually don't leave fb on this fic because I have so many conflicting thoughts about the characters


:lol: I didn't know you were still reading. I get it, though. Trust me, I have lots of conflicting thoughts on them even as I'm writing them.

in the case of Maria, Michael and Miley...well, if Maria doesn't return home I think Miley should remain with Michael and Maria visit.


Yeah, there's no denying that Michael is more capable of being a parent right now.


Thank you, as always, sooooo much for the feedback!








Part 140








Max had a heaping bag of trash clutched in his hand when he opened the door and saw Tiffany standing there, poised to knock. He lost his grip on the bag, and the contents inside came spilling out. A few empty soda cans rolled down the porch steps and into the grass. Tiffany smiled and laughed a little. Once the initial surprise of seeing her there wore off, he smiled, too, and hugged her.

“Sorry to just stop by,” she apologized after he’d invited her inside.

“No, it’s fine.” He flipped over the grilled cheese sandwich he was making her for, sort of enjoying the sizzle sound. She stared at him in astonishment, as though she couldn’t believe he was actually cooking. He nodded proudly. Yeah, he did that now, almost like he was a regular person. Almost.

“It’s good to see you again,” he said, happy to see that everything about her seemed lighter, airier. Her hair was lighter, bouncier. She had on nice clothes and a necklace. But she was still Tiffany. “Been awhile.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, leaning against the counter. “I had to ask around to find you. Do you, like, live here now?”

“Pretty much,” he mumbled. “Isabel left town, and Alex is in jail, so . . .”

Her eyes bulged. “What’d he do?”

There was no need to sugarcoat it. “Drove drunk. Killed someone.”

Her mouth dropped open.

“A baby,” he added, wondering whose crimes were worse: Alex’s, or his own.

“Oh my god,” Tiffany gasped.

“Yeah. Things haven’t been too good around here.”

“Is your nephew gone, too, then?”

He shook his head. “No, Isabel left him with me. Liz and I are his legal guardians. For now at least.” He flipped the sandwich over again, disappointed to see that it was looking a bit burnt. Sometimes he couldn’t do anything right. He turned off the stove and slid it onto a plate, not sure whether he wanted to give it to her or just toss it in the trash. “We’ve got a social worker visiting in a few days,” he explained, eyes locked on the ruined sandwich. “We kinda need to knock her socks off, and I don’t know if we will.”

“You’ll do fine,” Tiffany immediately assured him. “And social workers aren’t so bad. Trust me. I’m kind of an expert.”

He looked back at her and smiled, somewhat encouraged. He wasn’t all bad. He’d done some good things in his life. Hell, Tiffany was one of them.

“I’m actually here to visit mine,” she said. “My mom and dad are finalizing some adoption stuff.”

It felt weird to hear her using those words: mom and dad. Hadn’t been long ago that he’d been the closest thing she’d had to family. But it didn’t ignite his jealousy the way he’d thought it would. He was happy for her. She was getting a fresh start, and she was young enough that it was fresher than his was.

“So are you actually formally adopted now?” he asked.

“I will be, in a few weeks.” She grinned giddily. “I’m really happy.”

“Good for you.” He wanted Garret to be that happy someday down the road, someday when he and Liz made the decision to do what needed to be done. Because in his mind, there was no decision to be made.

As if on cue, Garret trundled downstairs, a toy truck in his hand. “Uncle Max, I’m hungry,” he said in between making ‘vroom’ sounds. He stopped when he saw Tiffany and tilted his head to the side curiously. “Hi.”

“Hi, Garret,” Tiffany said.

“Buddy, this is Tiffany,” Max told him. “Remember her?”

Garret scrunched up his forehead.

“From Thanksgiving?” Max prompted.

Recognition lit up his face. “Oh, yeah!”

Tiffany knelt down so that she was closer to his level. “Look at you,” she said. “You’re growing fast. Or maybe I’m just not growing at all.”

Garret shrugged and returned his attention to Max. “I’m hungry,” he repeated.

“Aunt Liz is bringing home pizza,” he said.

Garret pouted, though, and Max felt himself cave in.

“Here,” he said, handing him the burnt sandwich. “Don’t let it spoil your dinner.”

Garret dropped his truck on the floor and ran off into the living room to indulge. He didn’t care if the sandwich was burnt. He’d eat almost anything.

“Great parenting, huh?” Max remarked sarcastically.

“Seems like you’re doing fine,” Tiffany said. She watched Garret for a moment, then said, “Hey, Max?”

He could tell she was about to say something way too profound for her age, and he welcomed it.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m kind of glad you didn’t end up adopting me,” she admitted, and before he could take any offense, she explained, “I wasn’t meant to be your child. You already have one.”

He stared at her, letting that sink in, and then looked into the living room at Garret. He was spilling crumbs all over the couch and smearing globs of melted cheese around his mouth. He was a mess.

But he seemed happy.

Max couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Princess-cut diamond or regular round-cut. Kyle couldn’t decide. On the one hand, the round-cut was cheaper. But on the other hand, Tess did deserve to be treated like a princess. He scratched his forehead helplessly and tried to look past his panicked reflection as it shown in the glass jewelry case. He’d been in that damn department store for over thirty minutes now, and he still hadn’t gotten any closer to finding Tess an anniversary present.

He slumped forward, bracing himself against the counter, and looked around desperately for a salesperson. “This is just not my department,” he wailed, wishing he’d asked Michael for advice. Michael was good at this kind of thing. One year, he’d booked a day at the spa for himself and Maria. That was the same year Kyle had made the mistake of buying Tess socks and assuming they would be good enough.

He bent forward to take a closer look at the princess-cut ring, wondering if it was really even necessary to get Tess any more rings since he’d already given her an engagement ring and a wedding ring over the years. The high-pitched squeal of a child distracted him, though, and he turned around to see where it was coming from. No surprise, back in the toy aisle. A father and his son were looking at toy army figures. The kid couldn’t have been more than four or five, but he was all decked out in camouflage and seemed to be having the time of his life. With his dad. And Dad seemed equally as interested in spending time with his son. He even hoisted the boy up on his shoulders so he could better see the toys on the higher shelves.

That’s gonna be me, Kyle thought excitedly, or at least something like it. He was having a son. They would go to the store and pick out toys like this someday. And they would bring them home, and Tess would probably say they were too violent or too expensive or too . . . something. But they’d all sit down at night and play with them together. And when they were raising him, anniversaries would still be important, but not as important, because nothing would be as important as him, as their family.

Kyle looked back at the rings, and it dawned on him that he was going about this all wrong. Tess didn’t need or want a material gift. She just wanted him. For whatever reason, she wanted him, loved him more than anything. But he was keeping his distance because of what had happened to her, what had been done to her in the past. It was time to look forward to the future, though, because they actually had a future, and it was, despite everything, very bright.

He walked away from the ring counter, determined to give her a better gift than that.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Liz wasn’t sure how Tiffany had grown up to be such a nice, helpful young girl when she hadn’t even had any parents to raise her. Maybe she’d had one or two good sets of foster parents along the way, or maybe she’d just been born a good kid. Liz just hoped Garret turned out similarly. Now that Isabel and Alex were out of his life, there was no excuse for him not to.

“Thanks for letting me stay for dinner,” Tiffany said while she assisted Liz with the dishes that evening.

“No problem,” Liz said, circling the scrub brush around the center of a plate. “It was just pizza. Not exactly gourmet.” She laughed, remembering all the gourmet food she had eaten over the years. “Oh, if you knew how we lived a few months ago . . . in this huge mansion with a maid to cook and do dishes for us . . .” She shook her head, smiling. “We were spoiled.”

Tiffany nodded. “That sounds . . . stuffy and uncomfortable.”

Liz paused what she was doing, contemplating that. “Yeah,” she finally agreed. “Yeah, it kinda was.” There were certain things about that old lifestyle that she selfishly missed, but there were many things about this new one that she was grateful for. She and Max were closer than they’d ever been, though their relationship still wasn’t without its problems. That closeness alone was worth the lifestyle transformation.

“So how long are you gonna be in town?” she asked the young girl, handing her a plate to dry.

“Just for the weekend,” Tiffany replied.

“Oh, then you should come to Garret’s birthday party. It’s on Sunday. We’re going to the zoo, and then we’re coming back here for cake and presents and all that good stuff.” She knew plenty of kids were going to show up, mostly from the daycare, but Garret probably didn’t know most of them. Now that Tiffany had been hanging out all day, they’d established a nice bond.

“Sure, that sounds fun,” Tiffany said, glancing into the living room where Max and Garret were sitting on the couch, play-fighting about who got control of the remote. “He’s so cute.”

“Which one?” Liz grinned. “I think they both are.”

Tiffany laughed. “Garret. He seems pretty happy, even after all he’s been through.”

Liz shrugged. “Could say the same for you.”

Tiffany fell silent for a moment, concentrating on drying the plate in front of her, then set it aside and spoke up again. “It’s ‘cause of Max,” she said. “He saved me.”

Liz knew she’d always feel enormously proud of her husband for that. “Well, you saved him.”

“And now you guys are saving Garret.”

Liz looked at her nephew, her bouncing, laughing, giddy nephew who had smiled more in these past few weeks than he had in nearly four years with his parents. “We’re trying,” she said, scrubbing harder at the silverware in the sink. She didn’t want to get cocky, start thinking that she and Max were doing everything perfectly. They were just doing the best they could, and all she could hope was that their best was good enough. Especially when that social worker came.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Miley’s hair bounced on her shoulders when it was released from the curling iron, an adorable light brown spiral in the midst of dozens of other spirals. Michael didn’t understand why it hadn’t looked like that when he’d attempted it.

“Thanks for doing this,” he told Tess. “I can’t . . . I’m not . . .” He sighed frustratedly. “This is Maria’s domain.”

“It’s no problem,” Tess assured him. She curled the last section of her niece's hair, then sprayed a little hairspray to keep it all in place, and held up a mirror for her to see.

“Whoa!” Miley exclaimed. “I look pretty.”

“You always do,” Michael said quietly.

“Okay, don’t mess with those now, you hear me?” Tess instructed. “Otherwise you’re gonna have to sit here and have it done all over again.”

Miley nodded.

“Promise?” Tess asked.

“Promise.”

“Okay. Go play.”

Miley grabbed her crutches and slid down off the side of the bed, heading down the hallway to her bedroom.

“Thanks,” Michael reiterated, holding up the dress he planned to have her wear. It was new, pink with white polka dots. Hopefully it was the right size. He wasn’t sure. Usually Maria did the shopping, too.

Tess unplugged the curling iron and lifted the cord up on top the dresser. “Are you sure you want her looking all dressed up and pretty for a boy’s birthday party?” she asked.

“It’s fine.” He laid the dress out on the foot of the bed, smoothing out the wrinkles with his hands. How could something that was new already be wrinkled? “I’m gonna help chaperone, so . . .”

“Michael, they’re just toddlers.”

“So? They still need chaperones. Let’s not forget, this is the same dynamic duo who ran away from daycare together.” Miley and Garret were good for each other in many ways, but even as toddlers, they already had a history.

“Max and Liz are gonna be there,” Tess pointed out, using the now unplugged curling iron to curl the ends of her hair.

“Doesn’t reassure me.”

Tess laughed a little. “Fine, maybe I can swing by at some point, too, steal a slice of cake.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Michael sat down on the side of the bed, rubbing his hands against his legs nervously. Part of him didn’t even want to ask Tess the inevitable question, because talking about Miley and Garret was much easier, much safer. But he couldn’t help himself. “So have you talked to Maria lately?”

Tess stared at him in the dresser mirror, still messing with her hair, and simply replied, “Yes.”

He waited for more, hoping she’d give him something, anything. “Are you gonna tell me what she said?”

“No. I told her about this birthday party, but other than that, it was mostly just small-talk.”

“Mostly?” He just wanted to know if she’d mentioned him. If he just had some clue as to how she was feeling so that he’d know what to expect when she came back . . .

“I think she’s saving the really deep conversations for her therapist.”

Michael poked his index finger through a small hole in the bed sheet, still probing, still wishing he could get some small iota of information. “I really miss her, you know? I haven’t seen her or even talked to her in, like, a month now.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.” Tess set the curling iron down and turned to face him. “Look, Michael, I know we’re back on better terms now, but . . . I can’t just hum along to your pity ditty.” She sighed. “You’re the last person you should be feeling sorry for.”

He swallowed hard, nodding, knowing on some level that it was true. He had no right to feel sorry for himself, not when he was the one who’d fucked up so royally and driven Maria to the edge, not when he was the biggest reason why Miley had been separated from her mother for weeks. But still . . . he had thoughts and feelings and problems, too, but unlike Maria, he didn’t have a therapist to talk to.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Alex waited impatiently while the security guard read through the letter he’d written out. He wasn’t allowed to give any possessions to visitors unless they were thoroughly inspected first. It made sense. They couldn’t risk him sending out anything dangerous. Not that he would ever do that, but some of the other guys in the joint would. They were a lot more aggressive and violent than he was. He was a puppet who followed the rules. Others broke them, hence the reason why the rules were so strict.

The guard folded up the letter again and, with a tone of boredom, announced, “It’s fine.”

Alex nodded, placing the letter back in the envelope with his son’s name on the front. He shuffled towards the table where Max was sitting, waiting for him, and sat down across from him. “I’m really glad you came by today,” he started off. “I have something for you to give to Garret.” He hesitantly handed over the envelope. “If you will.”

Max took it from him and opened it right away, looking over the front. Alex had taken a few hours to sketch out a picture of him and Garret in colored pencil. It wasn’t Guerin-level artwork by any means, but it wasn’t too bad. “It’s a . . . birthday card,” he said, pointing out the obvious.

“Great use of color there,” Max mumbled, opening it to read the letter inside.

“They make us do this craft day on Wednesdays . . .” Alex shifted uncomfortably. What he’d written to Garret was personal, even though he’d known plenty of other people would see it. He wasn’t about to tell Max to stop reading, though, not when he was just taking the same precautions the guard had.

“Are you gonna give it to him?” he asked with an obvious hopefulness in his voice.

Max continued skimming the card, then folded it back up and put it in the envelope. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “He’s doing pretty good right now. I don’t wanna mess him up.”

Alex didn’t want that, either, but sitting in that prison facility day in and day out, unable to communicate anything at all to his son . . . “Please, Max,” he begged, literally begged. “I don’t have anything else . . .” He knew a birthday card wasn’t likely to excite his son in the same way that Max and Liz’s gifts would, but it was all he had to give. “Please.”

Max sighed, flipping the envelop over a few times in his hands. “I’ll give it to him,” he finally decided, pocketing it.

Relief swept through Alex. “Thank you.” At least his son would know he hadn’t forgotten his birthday. He’d never forget. This lonely day in March would always be lonelier than the rest. No matter how many years he rotted in this place, it would never get easier.

“So what’re you doing for his birthday?” he asked, just wanting to be in the know, so that maybe he could imagine he was with them, celebrating the way he should have been. “Are you doin’ anything?”

“Yeah, a party,” Max replied.

“A party?” He’d never given Garret a real birthday party. They’d always just gone out to eat. Except he was too young to remember. Maybe he’d remember this birthday.

“And the zoo,” Max added. “Miley’s coming.”

“Oh, he’ll love that.”

“Yeah.” Max pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “I’d better get going. Don’t wanna be late.”

“Will you take some pictures?” Alex realized he was grasping at straws, grasping at anything he could to have at least some sort of involvement with his son. But this wasn’t involved. Not really. He could look at all the pictures in the world and send as many cards or letters as he wanted, but in the end, he wouldn’t really be there.

“Sure,” Max replied.

Again, Alex felt relieved. “Thank you.” It wasn’t the real deal, but it was better than nothing.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Who is Alex Whitman?”

Maria slowly raised her head, an alarmed tingle traversing her spine. That name, that name alone . . . it put every square inch of her on edge. “You’ve read the headlines,” she shot back at her doctor. “You know who he is.”

Dr. Carlson leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on his lap. “I’d rather hear about him from you.”

“Of course you would.” She rolled her eyes, wishing there was some way around this. But if they didn’t talk about him now, they’d just put it off until the next session. Nothing went un-discussed here, not for long. “He’s the creep who killed my daughter,” she summarized, her jaw tensed tight. “What else is there to say?”

Dr. Carlson shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

She pursed her lips together and sighed frustratedly, tilting her head back. She stared up at the blank ceiling and knew that he wasn’t going to force her to say anything. He was going to sit there, just like he always did, and listen. Just listen. Gone were the days of note-taking. Maybe he had a recorder hidden somewhere she didn’t know about, but as far as she was concerned, it was just talking. Just words. Words that she was finally getting out there, or not.

The words bubbled to the surface.

“How could he just keep going?” she wondered aloud, her voice already strained with emotion as her mind brought her back to that horrific accident. “He hit our car and he didn’t stop. If he’d just tried to help . . .” Her lower lip quivered. “I still would’ve hated him, but maybe not as much.” She wasn’t sure if that was true or not. Casting a quick glance at Dr. Carlson, she remembered what he’d told her about therapy before they’d even began: He’d told her that it was important to not overanalyze what you were saying, to just say what you were feeling. And she was feeling a lot.

“If it weren’t for him, Macy would still be alive,” she went on, tears welling up in her eyes. “I would be pregnant, Miley would be in a dance class, and Michael and I would be married and happy.” She glanced down at her barren left ring finger and then, almost self-consciously, covered it up with her right hand. “He ruined everything,” she choked out, fairly certain that Michael never would have betrayed her if Macy had never died. “I hate him.” Hate wasn’t even a strong enough word for it, so she said it with as much venom as she could.

“Do you think you’ll ever forgive him?”

Her answer was swift and immediate. “No.”

“Do you want to?”

“No.” He didn’t deserve forgiveness. He didn’t deserve anything.

Dr. Carlson leaned forward, resting his arms on his desk. “Do you think it’d be easier if--”

“No, you don’t understand: I wish I could kill him,” she snapped, nearly springing from her seat. “I wish I could wrap my hands around his neck and feel it break.” Momentarily, she saw the doctor’s eyes grow wide with surprise. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to carry around all that anger on top of all this pain?”

Quickly, his surprised turned to sympathy, and he spoke to her not as her therapist to his patient, but as one human being to another. “It sounds unbearable.”

It didn’t just sound that way. “It is.” It wasn’t just a weight on her shoulder—that was too weak of a metaphor. It was something else entirely, something that she couldn’t even put into words. “So how am I supposed to bear it?”

Dr. Carlson didn’t offer up a response. He was a good doctor, but he wasn’t all-knowing. He didn’t pretend to have all the answers. He did this a lot, just stared at her and let her work through things on her own rather than suggesting a course of action.

She closed her eyes and pictured Macy. She heard her imaginary laughter in her ears, smelled the baby powder they rubbed on her after a bath in her nose. She felt her baby soft skin and remembered what it felt like to hold her, to hold her and feel like everything would be alright, even when everything wasn’t.

Her eyes snapped open, and she was back to the place where there was no Macy, back to the place where she was supposed to be talking about Macy’s killer.

“He has a son, you know,” she revealed, just in case Dr. Carlson didn’t already know that. “Alex Whitman is a dad.” That fact made the entire hit-and-run situation a thousand times more unimaginable. Her voice was a shaky whisper when she said, “And he’s a monster.”








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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April
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Part 141

Postby April » Sun Oct 14, 2012 2:15 pm

I had every intention of responding to feedback today, but I've got about 40 papers left to grade and a matter of hours left to grade them. :roll: None of them were exactly written by scholars, so I think I'd better save lots of time to do that. With that in mind, thank you for the feedback:


Ellie

Novy

Grace


And on we go!









Part 141








Tess hummed a song from college, unable to remember the lyrics, and pranced down the hallway—literally pranced—with the laundry basket perched on her hip. She was in a good mood. Tomorrow was anniversary day, and she had high expectations for it.

She stopped at the upstairs linen closet to put some towels away, then picked up the basket again and made her way into the bedroom. She could barely open the door, though, without running into a mountain of pillows and blankets. “What the . . .?” She trailed off and surveyed the scene. Kyle was in the midst of all of it, desperately trying to stack pillows atop one another to create some kind of solid structure. When she walked in, he froze, mouth open, as though he’d just been caught doing something bad.

“Oh, crap,” he cursed. “Hi.”

“Hi.” She set the laundry basket down on the floor slowly. “What’re you doing?”

His wall of pillows toppled over, and he bent down to pick them up. “I didn’t know you were gonna be back so soon,” he mumbled as he tried to reconstruct it.

“Well, all I had to do was curly Miley’s hair.” She carefully stepped further into the room, smiling adoringly. “Are you . . . is this what I think it is?”

He sighed heavily when his pillow wall fell again. “It’s gonna be.”

“A pillow fort?”

He shrugged. “Well, my last one was such a huge success.”

She blushed, remembering that day a few years ago when she’d walked into his old apartment with him and seen the pillow fort waiting there. She remembered telling him about how she and Maria used to make them all the time, and how they always made her feel stress-free and safe, never once imaging that he’d actually go through the trouble of making her one. She remembered how proud of it he’d been. And mostly she remembered the hot sex they’d had within it.

“Happy anniversary,” he said, flapping his arms helplessly against his sides. “A day early.” He seemed disappointed that he hadn’t completed his surprise. “This was just gonna be a test run. I was gonna take everything down and surprise you tomorrow, but . . . I suck, I guess.”

“Kyle.” He so did not suck. Sucky husbands didn’t do this kind of thing for their wives.

“I mean, I don’t even know why we have so many pillows. It’s like an addiction.”

She laughed a little, stepping on top of some of the pillows so she could get to him. “You’re like a big kid, you know that?”

“Well . . .” He shrugged, apparently fine with that.

“I can’t believe you did this for me. Again.” If possible, it was even sweeter the second time around.

“Well, see . . . I love you.” He took her hands in his, squeezing them gently. “I really, really love you. In fact, I think it’s safe to say I loved you the moment I saw you, as cheesy as that sounds.”

Her heart started to do cartwheels inside her chest. “Really?” She wished she could remember meeting him, but she’d been drunk and pissed about Max. Stupid Max. Stupid everybody who couldn’t hold a candle to Kyle.

“Yeah,” he insisted, rubbing his thumbs over her knuckles. “And I’m not kidding, there were some days when the remote possibility that you might like me was the only thing that kept me going.”

She laughed.

“I dreamed about being with you, but I never thought it would actually happen. And now, here we are, married for two years with a baby on the way? It’s nuts.”

“It is,” she agreed. The craziest thing about it was . . . things were working out. They’d had plenty of obstacles along the way, some worse than others. But they had made a baby, just like she’d always thought they would, and they were going to have that baby and raise him to be just like his dad.

“You’ve made me really happy,” he told her, almost assured her.

She felt tears sting her eyes, because she remembered putting him through hell not all that long ago, back when she’d cut herself off from him completely. Understandably, perhaps, but completely. “You make me happy, too,” she said, sensing where this was going. Déjà vu in the pillow fort.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same, because you . . .” He trailed off and slinked his hands around her waist, pulling her in close to him, close enough so that he could feel the small bump of her stomach. “You’re amazing and beautiful and tough. So tough.” He lowered his head for a moment, taking on a serious tone when he said, “I hate what he did to you. I hate that you even had to go through that.”

She shifted uncomfortably at the mention of Billy. Did they have to talk about him? Billy was gone, and they were still there.

“But the fact that you’re standing here right now, glowing and smiling and making me smile, too . . .” He rubbed her back with his warm, artistic hands. “You’re the strongest person I know.” He paused, then, as if he wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to say the next part. But finally, he did. “You’re my hero, Tess.”

She inhaled shakily, so not used to being called that. She knew she was strong, a lot stronger than she’d ever imagined herself to be, but how could she be his hero? How could she be his when he was already hers?

“I mean it,” he insisted quietly, leaning in to kiss her.

She tilted her head back, and her lips awaited his. His kiss was tender, sweet, loving. It was everything she expected from him, everything she wanted.

She cupped his face in her hands, loving the feel of a day or two worth of stubble there. As much as Kyle could sometimes act like a big kid, he wasn’t one. He was a man, a real man. A good man.

Her man. And this was their half-assembled pillow fort.

“Do you still want to?” he murmured against her lips.

“Yes,” she answered without hesitation, her whole body heating up in anticipation. “Do you want to?”

Finally, at long last, much to her relief, they were on the same page. “Yeah.” He grinned and leaned in again, capturing her lips in a hotter, more insistent kiss this time, but nothing too wild or forceful. His fingers trickled down her back, urging her shirt up just a few inches so he could tickle her skin, and she knew this was going to be like her first time all over again. Because, in a way, it would be. It was the start of something new, a whole new chapter in her life. It was her chance to put the past behind her, and for him to do the same.

Billy was the past. That night was the past. This was now.

She slid her hands in between them to unbutton his shirt, slowly bringing his chest into view. An anticipatory tingle traversed her spine as she pushed it off his shoulders. This, this now-ness, was actually happening. She wasn’t just imagining it. And Kyle looked good. She probably never gave him enough credit for how good he looked. His body was almost as beautiful as his heart and soul was. Almost. Because nothing could be that beautiful.

She laughed lightly at her own thoughts. She sounded like a romance novel.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, cupping her cheek.

“I don’t know,” she answered honestly, sliding her hands up his chest to drape over his shoulders. She massaged the back of his neck for a moment, just gazing up at him, and then she got back in the moment again. The incredibly sweet and sexy moment where all she wanted to do was kiss him. So she did.

All concept of time vanished from her mind when their lips met again, so she wasn’t sure how long it took them to get situated on the mountain of pillows and let each other’s hands and lips roam over their bodies. But she was completely sure of how surreal it felt when he spooned up behind her, lifted her leg just slightly, and slid into her. He didn’t move at first, just lay there and gave her a bit of time to adjust, because it’d been awhile. It didn’t hurt, but it was definitely . . . new. Even though it wasn’t.

It didn’t take long for the new to give way to the natural, and his hips settled into that same rolling motion they always did when he was inside her. He was being careful not to go too fast, not to push her too hard, too far, too anything. It was clear in the way his hands caressed her stomach and her sides and the way he kissed her shoulder and her neck that he wasn’t doing this to her; he was doing this for her.

“Uh . . .” she moaned, digging her head into the pillow as he reached down between her legs to touch her. This was so much better than the last time they’d done this, because there were no lies in the way this time. No arguments. Just them. Just Tess and Kyle. And the baby Tess and Kyle had made.

“Are you okay?” he whispered huskily in her ear. He must’ve known she was okay, though, because he kept moving. She couldn’t even muster a response. Her body was responding all on its own.

His left hand splayed against her tummy, his breath fell in pants on her neck, and she moaned the one word everyone took for granted, the one that was the exact opposite of what she’d felt that night in her studio: “Yes.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The birthday party didn’t go as planned right from the start, and Liz felt like an idiot for ever assuming it would. All the planning, all the hard work she’d put in arranging things with the zoo, and everything was shot down the drain when a thunderstorm hit. The zoo didn’t host parties in thunderstorms, so they gave her the option of rescheduling. But she couldn’t very well reschedule Garret’s birthday, so she thought something up on her feet. There was an elderly couple a ways down the road who raised chickens, goats, and pigs, so she asked them if they would be willing to bring their animals by the house for the afternoon. They agreed, and within a short time, there was a petting zoo in the front yard.

Liz ushered the group of kids outside, most of whom were from the preschool, but none of whom Garret seemed particularly chummy with. “Okay,” she said, trying to steady her nerves as the excited toddlers approached the animals. “Just because the weather’s not cooperating and we can’t go to the zoo, that doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun. And look on the bright side: Now the zoo’s coming to us.” She had a feeling she was talking more to herself than the kids. They didn’t care what animals they got to see, just so long as they got to see some.

“Cool!” the kids exclaimed, running towards the animals.

“Slow down! Don’t scare them!” Liz hollered after them, whimpering nervously. Just what had she gotten herself into here?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Max leaned against the porch railing, watching the chaos unfold. The rain was letting up quickly, but it was still cloudy outside. That couldn’t be a good omen. There were at least a dozen kids in that front yard, possibly more, and they all seemed to have eaten pure sugar for breakfast. They were crazy, psychotic, out of their minds with endless energy. As if sensing that, the neighbors’ goats tried unsuccessfully to run away when they came to pet them.

“This seems ill-advised,” Max remarked flatly.

Beside him, Tiffany laughed a little. “At least they’re having fun.”

He rolled his eyes. Fun was overrated. He was halfway inclined to hand them each a brand new cleaning supply as a party favor and tell them to get to work on the house.

“Who’s that?” Tiffany asked, pointing to a car as it pulled up in the driveway. Even before she got out, Max could make out Miley in the backseat, her dad in the front. Garret was the only kid who seemed to notice when she showed up, which was probably a good thing since it took so long to get her out of the car. Michael had her practically locked down into her car seat, which would have been fine, except her back brace got stuck on the seatbelt. Luckily, she was too young to be embarrassed.

“That’s Miley,” Max replied finally. “Garret’s best friend.”

“Really?” Tiffany’s eyebrows rose in intrigue.

Max nodded, watching as Michael lifted his daughter out of her car seat at last. She didn’t have the crutches with her this time; she had a cane. She was a three year old girl, and she had a cane like old people had. It was weird to see. Max almost felt sorry for her.

No, he did. He did feel sorry.

“What happened to her?” Tiffany asked quietly.

He sighed. “Remember how I told you about Alex and that car accident?”

“Yeah.” It took a moment for her to connect the dots, but when she did, her eyes grew wide. “Oh my god,” she whispered in horror.

“Yep.” Causing the accident was one thing, but covering it up . . . Max was—or at least he had once been—a master manipulator and heartless bastard at that. But even he would’ve had a hard time seeing that little girl around town and keeping silent.

“Nothing’s ever simple around here, is it?” Tiffany said as Michael and Miley approached.

Max chuckled. “You have no idea.” He stood up straighter to greet the latest guest, not sure if this was the right place for a girl like Miley. Surely she’d get made fun of. The animals wouldn’t hold the kids’ attention forever. When they got bored, they’d inevitably turn their attention towards the girl with the cane.

“Miley,” he greeted, trying to sound friendly. He didn’t bother sounding friendly when he greeted her father, though. “Michael. So glad you could make it.” Even after the accident, he still didn’t like Guerin. As far as he was concerned, the overwhelming hero-worship of Michael Guerin had been misplaced all along. He wasn’t a hero, and he wasn’t a savior. And after nearly sleeping with Isabel, the verdict was still out on whether or not he could even be considered a good guy. Maybe if Isabel had just realized this, all their lives could’ve been easier.

“Where does this go?” Michael asked, holding up a large gift bag.

“I’ll take it,” Tiffany volunteered, carrying it into the house. She smiled at Miley as she went, but Miley was too absorbed in the animals to smile back.

“Who’s that?” Michael asked.

“My friend,” Max replied.

“You have friends?”

“Uh, lately, more than you do.” He smirked.

Michael narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Isn’t it kind of weird to be friends with a middle schooler?”

“Isn’t it kinda weird to fuck my unfaithful sister?”

“I didn’t--” Michael immediately covered Miley’s ears, and for a moment, Max regretted saying anything. She was just a kid, just a kid like Garret was, and she didn’t need to hear those kinds of things.

“Do you wanna go pet the animals, sweetie?” Michael asked her softly.

Her face lit up. “Yeah.”

“Okay.” Michael made sure her raincoat was zipped up, then helped her take a few steps through the mud. “Be careful,” he said, his eyes never leaving her as she made the relatively short trek over to the animals on her own. It was so obvious that he would have rather just carried her and that it was killing him to hang back. He seemed to relax when Garret came up to her, though, and helped her over to pet one of the piglets.

When she was completely out of earshot, Michael spun back around to Max. “I didn’t fuck her,” he clarified, as if that mattered.

“Fondled her.” Max shrugged.

Michael glared at him as though he were about to erupt.

“Oh, come on, you didn’t honestly think you were gonna crash my nephew’s birthday party and not suffer some torment, did you?” They weren’t friends. They’d never liked each other. It didn’t matter if Miley and Garret grew up to get married and have kids of their own; they’d never get along. They were too different.

Or . . . maybe they were too much the same, because the lines between good and bad weren’t so clear anymore.

“I didn’t crash,” Michael mumbled angrily.

“No, Miley didn’t. You did,” Max reminded him. “Look around. We have plenty of chaperones.” Between him and Liz and the neighbors, they were covered. “You could leave.”

“But, see, chaperone implies trust, and I don’t trust you.”

“Well, I don’t like you.”

“Oh, feeling’s mutual.” Michael stepped up on the porch, and leaned against the opposite porch column, once again returning his gaze to Miley. “You know, Max,” he said, “whenever I see you, it takes everything I have not to beat the hell outta you.”

“Watch it now,” Max cautioned. “I’m not your human punching bag. Alex is.”

Michael bristled at the mere mention of that name. But it was true. There was still a slightly pink stain to parts of that living room carpet that could attest to that.

Max chuckled inwardly. Maybe the torment was a little unnecessary, but it was just so much fun to watch Michael squirm.

“Well, what do we have here?” he said, only allowing himself to become distracted when a vehicle pulled up behind Michael’s. A slender African American woman got out, dressed in business casual attire, her hair pulled into a tight bun atop her head. Her skirt rode up to mid-thigh when she got out of the car, and she tugged it back down. Max grinned. He’d had strippers like this in the past, all professional on the outside, usually wearing some kind of red or black leather underneath, and usually hiding a whip within a certain cavern of their bodies.

“Sorry, I think you got the wrong address,” he called out to her as she came towards him. “This is a child’s birthday party, not a bachelor party. Although . . .” He chuckled. “If you wanna stay and provide some entertainment, I wouldn’t say no.” It’d be a hell of a lot more interesting than the damn petting zoo.

“Excuse me?” the woman asked, stepping under the shade of the porch to avoid the raindrops.

Max hesitated before asking, “You’re a stripper, right?”

The woman held her hand to her chest the way women tended to do when they were extremely offended. “I’m Valerie Melton,” she said, “social worker.”

“Oh, shit,” Max swore, immediately extending his hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Max Evans.”

She shook his hand reluctantly, and he felt his stomach clench. They were off to a great start.

“I, uh . . . I thought we weren’t meeting until Saturday,” he said.

“It is Saturday.”

“It is?” What? When had that happened?

“Day after Friday,” she said impatiently, almost condescendingly. “That’s a Saturday, isn’t it?”

“Where I grew up, yeah,” Michael grumbled, probably loving every second of this like the smug son of a bitch he was.

“Huh. Well . . .” Max tried to remember how to be that in control, confident businessman who’d conducted all those meetings over the years, the one who made multimillion dollar negotiations on a daily basis. He hadn’t been that man for awhile, because he’d been trying to be better. But he needed to be confident and sure of himself now, and he wasn’t.

“What a great day to have you here,” he finally said, plastering a smile on his face to try to hide some of his nervousness. “It’s my nephew’s birthday.” A piglet scampered by, oinking and squealing as if it were running for cover. “That’s not my nephew.” He cringed when he heard Liz yelling, “No, kids, don’t eat that stuff! That’s not candy!”

Valerie Melton surveyed the scene with obvious wariness.

“Petting zoo,” Max said. “What fun.” And what a bad idea. He wasn’t even going to bother telling her that this hadn’t been the original plan. There was no point in making excuses. Besides, if he told her they’d been planning on going to the zoo, she’d know he hadn’t even planned on being home for their appointment.

The social worker stared at him, forcing a smile, and he stared at her, forcing one back. And just when he wondered if they might stare forever, Michael piped up, “He’s an ass,” and left to go hover over Miley.

Max felt fury racing through his veins. Sure, it was true, but he didn’t want this woman to know that.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Liz was about to have a meltdown. Why had she invited so many kids? Why had she gone the animal route instead of just planning a few simple party games? Why did it have to be so wet and gloomy out? Why were the kids eating chicken feed when they weren’t chickens?

“Just don’t eat it, okay?” she practically pleaded, snatching a handful of feed away from a little girl whose name she couldn’t remember. “That’s gross.” She glanced over at Garret, happy to find that he was being calm. The neighbors were showing him how to hold a little chicken, and Miley was beside him, eagerly waiting her turn.

Liz nearly jumped out of her skin when Michael came up behind her and asked, “Want some help?”

“Oh, god. Please.” She couldn’t hide her desperation.

“Hey, listen up,” Michael bellowed to the kids eating the chicken feed. “Do you wanna puke?”

A few of them shook their heads, seemingly alarmed by his stern tone.

“Do you wanna puke?” he asked a kid beside him.

“No,” the kid whimpered.

“Well, you’re gonna puke if you eat that, so stop.”

And just like that, the kids gave the chicken feed back to the chickens.

“Wow,” Liz said, astonished. “You’re so good at this.”

He shrugged as though it were no big deal. “Practice.”

She smiled softly, grateful to have him there, and was about to tell him that when she caught sight of Max and some woman standing on the porch, having what looked to be a very uncomfortable and one-sided conversation. Max was doing all the talking. And, if it was possible, he looked flustered. Max Evans looked flustered.

“Would you watch the kids for a minute?” she asked Michael.

“Sure,” he replied.

“Thanks.” She made her way over to her husband, careful to step around and over the biggest mounds of mud. She caught the tail end of what Max was saying and had to cringe.

“It’s not that you look like a stripper; it’s just . . . my mind automatically went there. I should seek treatment. I’m aware of this.”

“Max?” She gave a small wave to alert him of her presence.

“Oh, thank God,” he said in a rush. “Liz. Valerie, this is my lovely wife, Liz. Liz, this is Valerie, the social worker.” He said the last part with a little too much emphasis.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” Liz greeted, shaking the woman’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, too,” Valerie returned.

“I thought this was all happening tomorrow.”

Max pressed his lips together and sighed frustratedly. “So did I,” he muttered. “I got confused on my . . . days.”

“Hmm.” Liz could sense how bad this was going just by the look on the social worker’s face. She felt the need to salvage it, but she wasn’t quite sure how. Just act natural, she told herself. You’re not a naturally bad person. You’ve just made some bad choices. “Well, the more the merrier,” she said, figuring the day had already been altered enough. What was one more surprise thrown into the mix? “Valerie, can I get you anything, something to eat or drink?”

“Oh, I’m fine, thank you,” the social worker said politely, her eyes roaming over to the children. “So tell me, which one is your nephew?”

“Oh, the one in the black sweater, holding the chicken. Curly hair,” Liz replied, pointing him out.

“Flirting with the girl with the cane,” Max added in.

Liz gave him a sharp look. They were supposed to be acting like parents. Did parents say that things like that? Parents other than Isabel?

Tiffany came back outside a moment later, and she started talking before she saw the visitor. “Max, did you know there’s a family of mice living behind the refrigerator?”

Max nudged her subtly as a way of saying, ‘be quiet.’

“Oh, sorry,” she apologized.

“And who do we have here?” the social worker asked.

“This is Tiffany,” Max replied. “She’s a friend of the family.”

“Hi,” Tiffany said, waving a little. She must have sensed the overall uncomfortable vibe of the situation, because it was as though suddenly she couldn’t get out of there fast enough. “I’m gonna go pet the animals,” she said.

Max was eager to follow her. “Me, too.”

“Actually, Mr. Evans,” Valerie said, stopping him, “I was wondering if you could give me a tour of your house. Mice and everything.”

Crap, Liz swore inwardly. She would’ve much rather had the roles be reversed, Max supervising the party while she schmoozed the social worker. Not that she’d do much better than he would. They were both so unprepared for this. They didn’t have that natural parenting ability Michael did. They just . . . didn’t. Or at least they hadn’t had time to develop it yet, to learn it, to perfect it the way he had.

“Sure,” Max said, motioning towards the door. “Ladies first.”

Valerie stepped past him and slipped inside the house. He met Liz’s eyes for an instant, an instant in which she glimpsed genuine worry there. She knew how important this was to Max, to both of them, that they make a good impression on this woman. Because if they didn’t, there was no telling what would happen to Garret, where he would go live, who he would end up with. They couldn’t let that happen. They owed it to him to be good parents . . . even though they weren’t his parents.

Max gulped and went inside.








TBC . . .

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Part 142

Postby April » Sun Oct 28, 2012 2:27 pm

Needing to make this speedy today, so I'll just say THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE FEEDBACK:

Grace

CandyliciousLovah

Ellie

Sonia

Novy


Seriously, after 142 parts, some of which have been extremely tough to get through, it's nice to know that people are still reading.
:)








Part 142







“Mmm,” Tess purred, curling up against her husband’s chest. “That was nice.”

Just nice?” he asked, stroking her back.

“And explosive.” She tilted her head back to look at him, leaning in closer for a kiss. “Nice and explosive.” When their lips met, she could taste herself there.

“Well, I don’t know about you,” he said, shifting around beneath the blankets, “but . . . I think I got another round in me.”

“Another?”

“Yeah. I’m insatiable.” He chuckled, then regressed. “But I know you’re probably uncomfortably pregnant, so I can hold off.”

She propped herself up on her arm, surveying the complete and utter destruction of their bedroom. The pillow fort had never been much of a fort to begin with, and now there were just pillows randomly scattered about the room. They’d managed to get up to the bed, but all the blankets were un-tucked and hanging off the side.

“Actually, I’m really comfy,” she told him. “Just a little self-conscious ‘cause of the gut I’ve got right now, though.”

“That’s not a gut,” he said, rubbing her stomach. “That’s our kiddo.”

“Our kiddo,” she said in a sing-song voice, giddily leaning in for another kiss. Thank goodness that was their kiddo. Their son.

“Oh, crap,” she swore, pulling away quickly.

“What?”

“Kiddos. Garret. His birthday party. I said I’d swing by.” She crawled over Kyle and scrambled to her dresser to search for something to wear.

“Right now?” Kyle nearly whimpered.

“I’m late,” she muttered, yanking on a pair of jeans. “You distracted me with your hands and your lips and your . . . everything.” She glanced over her shoulder at him and noticed a bulge in the sheets. Poor guy. She hated leaving him like that, but it was nothing he couldn’t take care of himself. “Alright,” I gotta go,” she said, quickly throwing on a long-sleeved t-shirt. “I’ll be back, and when I am, we’ll pick up right where we left off.” She patted his stomach, touching him dangerously close to his erection, and kissed him quickly before scampering around all the pillows and out of the room.

“I’ll just wait here!” Kyle called after her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The tour of the house was bad. Very bad. Because the house itself looked bad. There were piles of laundry in the laundry room that had yet to be washed. There were dishes in the sink, because they’d been meaning to do those that night, thinking she’d be showing up tomorrow. There was spoiled milk in the refrigerator, because he’d simply neglected to throw it out. And the mice just had to make numerous appearances.

“So that’s pretty much it,” Max concluded, bringing the judgmental social worker back out into the living room. Was it just him, or did the woman have a permanent scowl on her face? Not that there was anything wrong with scowling; he used to do it all the time. But a smile, a nod, some kind of lighthearted reassurance that he wasn’t a complete fuck-up would’ve been nice.

Valerie nearly tripped on a kid’s pair of shoes as they headed back down the hallway. They weren’t even Garret’s shoes. Max swore inwardly and bent down to pick them up and toss them into the pile of shoes near the front door where they belonged. “Sorry about the clutter,” he apologized, even though it killed him to apologize for anything. “It’s just kinda crazy with all these kids here today.”

“Yes,” Valerie agreed, almost emphatically.

“But at least you got to see Garret’s room,” he said, hoping to shift her focus back to what had probably been the one and only highlight of the tour. “It’s nice, right? I mean, he’s got lots of toys.” Most of those toys were from him and Liz. Isabel and Alex had never gotten him much. “We would’ve cleaned up more if we knew you were coming.”

“You did know,” Valerie pointed out immediately. “You just forgot.”

Fuck, I hate this bitch. He wanted to throw her out of that house on her ass. Her smug, fat ass.

She walked towards the front window and ran her hand across the inside ledge. “This is an old house, isn’t it?” she guessed.

“Yeah. I know it could use some work. My sister and her husband didn’t really do much with it when they lived here.”

“Oh, so this isn’t your house?”

“No, it is. It’s in my name,” he clarified immediately. “I bought it for them back when I was rich.”

“That’s right. You owned a hotel company.” She crossed her arms over her chest, surveying him up and down. “I did some research on you, Mr. Evans. It seems you had the world at your fingertips not that long ago. What went wrong?”

He shrugged, trying to act like it hadn’t been a big deal. “Lost some investors.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Because of the accusations regarding your . . . sexual conduct, perhaps?”

He felt as if his blood had begun to boil, and he settled himself into a necessary lie. “False accusations. I never raped anyone.”

She raised her eyebrows inquisitively, and he could tell she didn’t quite believe him.

“Dig a little deeper if you don’t believe me,” he urged. “There’s never been any charges filed; I’ve never been convicted of anything. Go ahead. Research it some more.”

“Oh, I will,” she assured him. She may have been a bitch, but she was at least somewhat smart, smart enough to not believe him, to not trust his word as truth.

He hated that about her.

As he stood there, waiting for her to say something else, probably something condescending, probably something that would make him feel like an even bigger loser than he already knew he was, he felt something snap within him, and he became the monster that still lurked inside, became the power-obsessed college rapist who’d simultaneously idolized and feared his own father. And when he became that person, he envisioned himself grabbing that bitch by the neck and slamming her down on the kitchen table, listening to her scream as he forced himself into her ass without her consent.

Bile rose in his stomach, and as the vision disappeared, he felt sick. “Excuse me,” he said, rushing upstairs to the bathroom. He had to get away from her. He practically crashed inside the room and slammed the door, panting for air, barely able to breathe. He hadn’t tapped into that kind of anger in a long time, and it scared the hell out of him. Because it, the monster, the worst part of him . . . it was still there.

He looked at himself in the cracked mirror, disgusted. It didn’t matter how many Tiffanys he helped, how many Alexes he exposed, or how many Garrets he took in. It would always be there.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The rain had officially let up, but tears were about to rain from Liz’s eyes. This was just too stressful. Too large, too many kids. Too much for her to take on, at least this year, at least for her first year with Garret. And it didn’t help that they were being watched, being judged. One wrong move, and Garret would have to go somewhere else.

“Okay, make sure you wash your hands,” she told the kids as they all crowded around the front door, eager to get inside and get to the cake. They were jabbering with each other, and they sounded like a pack of hungry hyenas. “Are you guys even listening?” she whined helplessly. “You have to wash your hands before you can--”

“Hey!” Michael shouted, not too loudly, just loudly enough to get their attention. “This is real simple. If you don’t wash your hands, you’re not getting any cake.”

The kids froze in fear, as though the thought were just unthinkable.

“Go on,” Liz whimpered, holding the door open for them as they galloped inside. She smiled thankfully at Michael and wondered, “Why does it work when you say it?”

“It’s a . . . tone thing,” he replied. “I’ve never actually had to be that strict with my kids, though. These guys are troublemakers.”

She groaned, trudging inside. “I should’ve just invited Miley.”

“Nah,” he dismissed, “too romantic.”

She laughed a little, casting a quick glance at Valerie Melton, who was walking around the living room, surveying every nook and cranny as if she were trying to find something wrong or something incriminating.

Just keep the party under control, Liz told herself. If you do that, you’ll do enough to satisfy her.

“Alright, are you guys ready for some cake?” she asked, forcing enthusiasm into her otherwise weary voice.

“Yeah!”

She picked up the cake from the counter and carried it over to the table, setting it down in front of a chair she’d decorated with streamers and balloons, just for the birthday boy. “Gather round. We have to sing happy birthday first.” She looked around for Max, not sure why he wasn’t with the social worker. He had the camera, too, so he was supposed to be taking pictures of this.

“Don’t push,” she said when some of the kids started to get rowdy with each other, fighting over seats. God, this was going to be a long afternoon.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael was glad he’d stuck around. The party wasn’t out of control yet, but it could easily get that way, and if it did, he wanted to be there to make sure Miley didn’t get hurt. She was more breakable than the other kids. They didn’t understand that, so they didn’t think twice about trying to squeeze in beside her at the table, causing her to get a little off balance as they did so. She stumbled backward a bit and had to use her cane to catch herself. Michael was instantly behind her, his hand on her back.

“Be careful,” he cautioned.

She just nodded, her eyes fixated on the cake.

He forced himself to take a couple steps back and not be too overprotective.

Tess came sprinting in the door a moment later, sounding out of breath as though she’d hurried all the way there. “I’m bad, I’m late,” she acknowledged. “What’d I miss?”

“Pigs and chickens,” he replied.

“Darn.” She straightened out her hair and readjusted her clothes, and Michael had a sneaking suspicion he knew what she’d been up to before she came here. Good for her. Really good for Kyle.

“I was gonna go to the zoo, but I drove by and saw everything going on here,” she said. “Got rained out, huh?”

“Yeah, I think Liz is pretty stressed about it.”

“Well, I hope my son never wants a birthday party this big, ‘cause he’s not getting one,” Tess decided adamantly.

Michael laughed a little, wondering how big Macy’s birthday parties would have been.

“You guys, this isn’t that hard,” Liz was saying, the frustration evident in her voice. “Just stand around the table.”

Michael looked at Miley, again getting shoved around a little bit. He was about to go up to her again, but Garret was there for her this time, wrapping his arm around her waist to keep her on balance. Tess must have noticed it, too, because she smiled and said, “Cute.”

Michael sighed reluctantly. It was cute. Dammit.

“Okay, are we ready?” Liz said, smiling over-exaggeratedly. “Oh, shoot, the candles.” She scampered back into the kitchen to find some.

“Let’s just eat it, Mommy,” Garret called.

“No, we—what?” She stared at him in shock as what he had just said registered. Mommy. She had the candles in one hand, a lighter in the other. But she couldn’t seem to move.

“Here, I’ll light ‘em,” Michael volunteered, taking the items for her. He stuck the four small sticks into the middle of the store-bought chocolate cake and lit them up. “There we go. You guys ready? Let’s hear those voices.” For as talkative as the kids were, though, none of them seemed to want to get the ball rolling with the song, so he had to. “Happy birthday . . .”

And that was all it took for them to chime in. “. . . to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear . . .” An awkward silence descended.

“Garret!” Miley exclaimed. Maybe she was the only kid there who actually knew him well enough to know his name.

“Happy birthday to you.”

“Make a wish,” Liz said, rejoining them at the table, still obviously a little bit frazzled.

Garret looked at her, then looked at Miley, and smiled. He bent forward and blew out the candles with one big gust. Liz clapped, exclaiming, “Yay, good job.”

Once the cake was sliced and all the kids were all seated at the table, looking somewhat sane for the first time that day, the social worker came up to Michael and tapped him on the shoulder. He allowed himself to look away from Miley, because she was fine. And he had to just let her be.

“Excuse me,” Valerie said, “are you a friend of the Evanses?”

Michael laughed at the ridiculousness of that question. “No.”

“Could I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yeah, sure.” He had a feeling she was going to ask him some questions about Max. And he was more than willing to answer them honestly.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Once he’d collected himself, Max trundled back downstairs, determined to be his normal self . . . if such a thing existed. As long as he wasn’t the monster, he’d be fine.

Unfortunately, he saw something that made him feel monstrous: Michael and the social worker, standing together in the living room, talking.

“Son of a . . .” He made his way towards them, happy to interrupt the conversation. “Valerie, I’m so sorry I just took off like that,” he apologized. “But, you know, when you gotta go, you gotta go.” It was a lame excuse, but at least it was plausible. And hell, he actually had pissed when he’d been up there, so it wasn’t even a lie.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Valerie said. “It gave me the chance to mingle.”

“I see that.” He looked at Michael, smiling unpleasantly. “Why don’t you go keep an eye on your daughter?” he suggested. “You’re good at that.”

“I am,” Michael agreed, walking away. Thank God. But it was possible the damage had already been done. Max needed to find out what he’d said. “Ms. Menden . . .”

“Melton,” she corrected.

“Ms. Melton, I assure you, whatever he just said is either completely false or greatly exaggerated.”

“Oh, that’s good, because he said you’re a narcissist with no regard for anyone but yourself. He said you have no feelings, no conscience. He thinks you’re an . . . egomaniac, I believe, is the word he used.”

“Well, he’s far from perfect himself,” Max grumbled, wishing he could list off all of Michael’s faults. Because there were plenty; they just weren’t as obvious. “Look, I haven’t always made the best choices,” he admitted. “But choosing to look after Garret? That was a good one. He brings out the best in me, and I love him.” It wasn’t hard to say any of that, not when it was all true. Still, he sensed she didn’t believe him. “I’m not all bad, okay?” he said, desperate to convince her. “Just . . .” He looked around, locating Tiffany standing near enough to the table to have cake but far enough away not to be lumped in with the younger kids. “Just ask her,” he said. “She’ll tell you. I’m trying my best.”

“I believe you,” Valerie said. “But you need to try harder.”

He sighed in frustration, wishing she could be a little more understanding. He hadn’t asked for any of this in the first place. “Please don’t take him from me,” he said quietly, hating the sound of his own voice being used to plead, to beg. “I need him.”

“I’m not taking him anywhere,” she assured him, much to his surprise. “But I will come back in a month to see what steps you’ve taken to improve this young boy’s situation, to improve this house, to improve yourself.”

He sighed again, in relief this time. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank your wife,” she said. “She’s the one I’m impressed with. She seems to be doing an excellent job. Your nephew even called her ‘Mommy’ while you were upstairs. That says something about her, don’t you think?”

Max looked over at Liz, poor, stressed-out Liz who looked as though she couldn’t wait for this party to be over, and he felt something he’d never felt for her before: admiration. Total, absolute. She wasn’t a saint, but she really was better than him. Even this stranger could sense it.

Thank you, he thought.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael and Tess sat away from the table, each nibbling away at their slices of cake. Although . . . Tess wasn’t nibbling so much as she was gobbling. Eating for two and all that, Michael supposed.

A food fight broke out between two boys at the table, and Liz jumped in to break it up. She was actually successful this time. Hopefully that would boost her confidence.

“God, I hope my son’s not this weird and crazy,” Tess remarked. “Do you think he’s gonna be?”

“Well, he’s got Kyle as a dad, so . . . probably,” Michael joked.

“I’m telling him you said that.”

“He’ll have no comeback.”

She laughed, finishing off the remainder of her cake. “Miley’s having fun,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, she is.” He knew now he’d made the right decision in letting her come here. She needed good memories like this to replace the bad ones. Or at least to cover them up for awhile. “Do you have a camera with you?” he asked his friend. “I should take some pictures to show Maria when she . . .” He trailed off. Never could seem to finish a sentence with Maria’s name in it anymore.

“I just have my phone,” Tess said, reaching into her purse.

“That’ll work.”

She handed it to him, and he pressed a button to bring up the camera. He held it up and zoomed it in on Miley and Garret, sitting at the table, laughing and jabbering. He took a few pictures, hoping Maria would want to see these. Maybe if he took some more pictures, she wouldn’t feel like she’d missed out on anything. He could do that for her. He could take pictures.

As he was snapping the images, he caught sight of something in the background. It was a card, one so small he wasn’t even sure how he’d seen it. It was propped up against a few gift bags on the counter, and it was addressed to Garret. From his father.

Michael handed the phone back to Tess and rose to his feet. Slowly, he made his way past the table of kids to the pile of presents, and he picked up the card. Alex had handwritten on the front. That son of a bitch handwritten To Garret, From Your Dad.

Maybe it wasn’t right to look inside, but Michael didn’t care. He tore open the envelope and took out the card inside. It looked like something a middle schooler would do, because it was just a folded up piece of construction paper with a drawing of Alex and Garret on the front, standing together and smiling. As though they could actually stand together when Alex was behind bars. As though Alex could actually smile.

Michael opened it and read what Alex had written. All very heartfelt, very nostalgic. Garret wouldn’t understand half the words, but he’d understand the overall message. Alex missed Garret and wanted him to know that. He wanted him to know that he loved him, that he always would.

Anger pulsating through his veins, Michael crumpled up the card, but he didn’t shred it. He felt like it, though. Why did Alex get to communicate with his son when he’d never get to say anything to Macy ever again?

“Michael?” Tess asked, concern evident in her voice.

It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. Alex didn’t deserve this kind of luxury, and Garret didn’t deserve to be confused.

“Daddy?”

He finally snapped out of it when he heard his little girl’s voice. She was looking at him with wide, innocent eyes. Even she seemed to know something was wrong. He didn’t want to ruin her day, though, so he took the card and headed into the living room to confront Max about it away from all the kids. At first, he just showed it to him. Max sighed heavily and motioned with his head to step outside, so they did.

Once they were out on the front lawn, out of earshot of the rest of the party, Michael demanded, “Why the hell would you give this to him? He doesn’t need this. Just keep Alex out of his life, out of everyone’s lives. Just let him rot in jail.”

“Don’t tell me how to run my family,” Max grumbled, seizing the crumpled card back from him.

“It’s not right,” Michael insisted, shaking his head adamantly.

Max rolled his eyes, held the card up high, and tore it down the middle. “There, you happy?”

And wasn’t that a hell of a question. Was he happy? “No.”

Max grunted in disbelief. “Well, what can I do? What can I do to make you happy? ‘Cause now that I know you basically told that bitch social worker I’m a sociopath, I really wanna do something nice for you. Let’s all bow down before King Michael and do his bidding.” He held up his arms and bowed exaggeratedly.

“This coming from the guy who used to wanna take over the world,” Michael mumbled.

“You know, I never understood why people put you up on this pedestal,” Max went on. “Isabel did, and it drove her insane. People think you’re so great and I’m so bad, but you and me? We’re not that different.”

“Yes, we are,” Michael insisted. He refused to believe anything else.

“We’ve both fucked up a lot.”

Fucked up?” he resounded. “You raped the girl I’m in love with!”

“And you cheated on her!”

Michael felt like he’d just been punched in the gut. Because it was true. He couldn’t deny it. And as much as he knew that rape was worse . . .

“But the difference is, people are mad at you for a few weeks, and then everything goes back to normal, and everyone’s impressed with you, and everyone likes you and roots for you again,” Max said. “But nobody’s rooting for me.”

Michael crossed his arms over his chest, determined not to get into too much of a confrontation at a child’s birthday party. “So that’s why you hate me?”

“No, that’s why I envy you,” Max ground out in a rare rush of honesty. “No matter what I do, it’s never enough.” He laughed angrily, tearing the card up into even smaller pieces. “Everyone’s always saying, ‘Put yourself in Michael’s shoes.’ Well, did anyone ever tell you to put yourself in mine?”

The answer was simple: No. And for that, he was thankful. He didn’t want to be in Max’s shoes. His own shoes were bad enough. But at least he could look back and know that he was, deep down, a good guy. Or, at least . . . he had been.

“Look, the bottom line is, that woman walked in here today looking for any reason to take Garret away,” Max said, “and you gave her plenty.”

“I gave her the truth,” Michael insisted.

“How would you know the truth? You don’t know me,” Max argued. “But know that I don’t wanna lose my kid. That’s all. You of all people should understand that.”

Not wanting to lose a kid? Yeah, he had that covered after losing two.

“What I feel for him when I hear him laugh, when I watch him play, when I tuck him in at night . . .” For a moment, Max’s eyes seemed to glaze over with tears, but before Michael could confirm that they were really there, they were gone. “It can’t be any different than what you felt for Macy.”

That was a big assumption, but Michael wasn’t about to dispute it. He didn’t question that kind of thing, not even coming from someone like Max.








TBC . . .

-April
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Part 143

Postby April » Sun Nov 11, 2012 2:20 pm

Novy:
Gosh, this debate between good and evil gets more and more fascinating. Can the monster have a heart? Can the one on the pedestal have flaws? On the surface the answer seems to be no but when you put human articles to it, the answer doesn't seem so clear after all.


Good. Uncertainty. That's what I'm going for. :)

For people that aren't family/friends their lives are sure dependant on each other.


And that's got to be a huge source of frustration for every single one of them.

Grace:
I am also glad that Max was the one to give it to Michael straight!


Yeah, you know, Max is in a unique situation with Michael. He can tell him absolutely anything and not feel bad about it. And honestly, a lot of what he's saying are things Michael needs to hear.

I don't like what Max did, but I admire when people try to turn their life around


Max's journey in this story has been so enjoyable to write. It's been interesting to depict his struggles with himself. He's never going to be one of the good guys . . . but he's not completely bad, either.

Ellie:
Guess I'm still the only card carrying member of the I Hate Max and Liz Club.


:lol: I'm sure you're not.

Yeah, Michael's done wrong, but his one wrong will never equal that of Max's. EVER!


Definitely true. And deep down, I'm sure Max realizes that.



Thanks for the feedback, as always!








Part 143








After the party was over, the house was a mess. Not that it’d been a shining example of neatness before. Liz was glad Tess stayed to help clean up. It’d make the whole process go a lot faster. Max didn’t seem to be in the mood to help. He’d retreated to the bedroom and hadn’t come out for awhile. He was either jacking off or sulking, and Liz had a feeling it was the latter.

“So was that weird for you today?” Tess asked as they wiped off the kitchen table.

“What?”

“When Garret called you Mommy.”

Liz shrugged. “A little.” She hadn’t had much time to think about it. “I mean, I’ve always just been Aunt Liz. I don’t even think he realized he said it. It just slipped out.”

“Yeah,” Tess agreed.

“But yeah, it’s weird. I mean, imagine if Miley called you that.”

“Huh.” Tess shook her head and kept cleaning off the table.

Liz set her washcloth aside, taking some time to really contemplate it. On the one hand, it made her feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside, but on the other hand . . . “I’m not his mom. Lately, I feel like I am, but I’m not.”

“Well, what if he keeps calling you that?”

She sighed, glancing into the living room where he was playing with a new toy airplane he’d opened about an hour ago. “I should probably talk to him in case he’s getting confused.”

“Good idea.”

Liz made her way into the living room, sitting down beside her nephew on the floor.

“Wanna play, Aunt Liz?” he asked.

She smiled. There it was. Aunt Liz. “Sure,” she said, even though she was content to just sit there and watch him have his fun. “Did you have a good birthday?”

“Yeah. The best.”

“The best, huh? Well, I’m glad.” She was happy to be able to give that to him. In the end, the party was worth all the chaos and all the stress if Garret had had a good time. “Hey, did you know you called me Mommy today?” she asked, trying to make it sound like just a normal part of the conversation.

He wrinkled his forehead in confusion. “What?”

“Yeah, you did.”

“Oops, sorry.”

“No, it’s fine, you don’t need to apologize.” The last thing she wanted to do was make him feel bad about it or make him feel as though he’d done something wrong.

Garret lowered his head, looking sad for the first time that day as he mumbled, “My mommy’s gone. So is my daddy.”

Liz’s heart went out to the little boy. He didn’t fully understand everything that had gone down with his family, but he comprehended enough to know it wasn’t good. “Uncle Max and I are here for you,” she reminded him, putting her arm around him. “We will always be here.”

“Uncle Max.” Garret giggled.

“And Aunt Liz. That’s what we are to you, okay?” For now, that was the simplest thing, just to keep things the way they always had been. They weren’t mommy and daddy, and maybe they never would be. That was okay. It didn’t lessen their bond with him in any way. “And you . . .” She stared at him adoringly, not sure how Isabel and Alex had managed to create something so wonderful. “You are everything to us.” As she spoke the words, she realized just how true they were. Their lives revolved around him. His well-being was the most important thing. Seeing him smile was the highlight of their day.

“Tickle, tickle!” she exclaimed, tickling his sides.

He giggled, squirmed in her arms, and that smile found its way back to his face.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael couldn’t believe where he was, couldn’t believe he’d managed to get himself there. It wasn’t as if he’d woken up that morning planning on visiting the county correctional facility; but when he’d asked Tess to watch Miley for awhile and she’d agreed, it seemed like the right thing to do, like the necessary thing to do after having spent the entire afternoon in the Whitman household, even though it was the Evans household now.

He walked inside to a surprisingly calm facility and passed a guard on his way out. He wasn’t sure who he was supposed to talk to, so he just said, “Excuse me?” and reached for the guard’s arm to get his attention. “I’m here to see someone.”

“Who?” the guard asked.

He took a deep breath. No going back now. “Alex Whitman.”

He sat in a small room a few minutes later, the one with the glass divider and all those phone devices. They wouldn’t let him meet with Alex in any other room, because they knew who he was, and they knew what Alex had done to him. They weren’t going to take any chances.

He wiped his hands on his jeans, nervous. He had no idea what he was going to say; he just knew he needed to say something.

They brought Alex into the room a few minutes later. He looked awful. He was limping, and there were specks of dried blood on his orange jumpsuit. Apparently he was having some confrontations in there. When he looked over and saw Michael, he immediately spun around and tried to leave. “No, no, no,” he whimpered, pleading with the guard who ushered him inside. “I don’t want to. I wanna go back. Take me back, please.”

The guard shook his head and pushed Alex further into the room. Alex didn’t look at him, and he wrapped his arms tightly around himself as he reluctantly sat down in the chair on the other side of the glass, shaking.

Maybe this was a mistake, Michael thought as he reached for the phone. But in his heart, he knew it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe this was the one and only time he’d ever be here. Maybe he wasn’t going to say much, but maybe it was enough to just say something.

It took some coaxing from the guard, but eventually, Alex picked up the phone, too. He didn’t say anything, so Michael started in.

“Your son didn’t get your card. Max tore it in half.”

Alex frowned, almost in anguish. “Why?”

“Because I asked him to.”

Alex swallowed hard, then nodded as though that made sense.

“I’m not sorry,” Michael added, just to make that perfectly clear. He didn’t give a flying fuck about this bastard’s feelings.

“Why’re you here?” Alex choked out, finally looking him right in the eye. It almost seemed as though he couldn’t handle it, though, because he quickly looked away again.

“Because you are,” Michael replied, surprising even himself with the calmness in his voice. “Because she’s not.” He pictured Macy’s face in his mind, and slowly, the picture faded. “She’s not here.” He wished he could be at home with his family, with all of his family, cuddled up next to Maria on the couch, watching Miley dance around in the living room, holding Macy while she fell asleep. He wished he didn’t have to be sitting there, staring at Alex through the glass, talking on that phone. He wanted things to be different. “She never got to have a birthday,” he pointed out since the whole concept of a birthday was fresh in his mind. “She never had her first birthday. You realize that?”

Alex’s fingers trembled as he gripped the phone. “I’m so sorry.” It was a genuine apology, surely, but in the end, it really didn’t mean much. It was one word: Sorry. One word couldn’t make up for a little girl’s entire life.

“You have a good son,” Michael informed him, impressed by what he’d seen from Garret that day. “He likes Miley. He takes care of her. You should be really proud of him.”

Tears sprung to Alex’s eyes, and he nodded. “I am.” He started to cry a moment later, and Michael knew he’d done more damage with a mere mention of Garret than he had with dozens of punches the night Alex’s confessed. Some words did mean a lot.

Alex slammed the phone back up on its receiver on the wall and shoved his chair back, practically bolting towards the exit. The guard ushered him out, and Michael just sat there, feeling . . . relieved. Not good, necessarily, but like he’d accomplished something. He wanted to remind Alex that he was missing out on something, that they were all missing out on something because of what he’d done. He wanted to remind Alex that, among all the lives he’d ruined that night, his own was one of them. But he hadn’t ruined Garret’s. Judging by what Michael had seen that day, there was still a lot of hope for that little boy, and he was thankful Miley was still around to be a part of it.

He left the prison facility and drove home, even considering driving down Highway 2 momentarily. But he couldn’t do that. Visiting Alex was all he could handle for one day. So he went home, stopped at Tess and Kyle’s place to pick up a very tired Miley, and put her to bed. Once she was sleeping, he pushed open the door to the room that used to be Macy’s nursery, the room that technically still was because he hadn’t taken anything down or put anything away. He stood in the doorway for a minute or so, just staring at the empty crib, trying to picture her in it. He still could. He’d always be able to. But it was just a picture; it would never be the real thing.

Sometimes people were just . . . gone.

****

Michael sat on his bed, staring dazedly at the floor, at his feet, at anything that didn’t require him to move his head much. He was wearing two different socks, and both had holes in them. He needed to take a shower, and he kept not taking one. And he didn’t even care.

The front door opened, and he wished it hadn’t.

“Michael?” Maria’s voice rang out, too cheery for the depression that currently engulfed him. “Michael?”

He listened as she walked down the hallway, nearing the bedroom. He hadn’t seen anyone except Kyle for a few days now. He didn’t really even want to see her.

She pushed open the door, and she was the complete opposite of him: dressed up, vibrant, energetic. Kooky as all get out, sure, but lively. She looked as if she were heading to a party that night. “Hey,” she said. “I heard about the evil bitch-slut leaving.”

He opened his mouth to tell her not to call Isabel that.

“And don’t even tell me not to call her that,” she said before he could get a word out. “That’s what she is.”

Was she? He had no idea anymore. All he knew was that she’d left, to be with someone else apparently, and not even the last pity screw against the bedroom wall could convince her to stay. “Maria . . .” He looked down at his feet again. “I kinda just feel like being alone right now.”

Maria grunted. “Alone and lonely. That’s not how I roll. Come on, get up. We’re going out.” She pulled open his top dresser drawer and tossed him a clean shirt.

“No,” he said, quickly dropping it on the floor.

“Yes,” she insisted.

“No.”

“Yes.” She came towards him and grabbed his hand, trying to pull him to his feet. “Michael . . .”

“No,” he growled, wishing she would just understand. But Maria wasn’t that kind of girl. She wasn’t a bad person, but she wasn’t a mature one, either. She wouldn’t understand why the death of his relationship was such a hard pill for him to swallow. She’d never even really had a real relationship. She just had sex.

“Come on, this isn’t healthy,” she persisted. “It smells like something died in here.”

“Yeah,” he muttered, “I did.”

She made a face. “Over-dramatic much?”

He shook his head. “You don’t get it.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I don’t.” She sighed impatiently. “I don’t get why she would leave you. You were really good to her. Too good. You’re good to everybody. And you’re smart. You’re nice and you’re smart and you’re cute. She’s clearly crazy.”

He grunted, not believing it. If he really was all those things, then why had Isabel left him? Was it really just about money, like she’d said? Or was there something about this Alex guy, something that made her love him more? Or . . . or was there just something about Isabel, something he’d been totally blind to for almost two years now?

Or was there something about him? Something wrong?

“Look, the bottom line is, she’s not here anymore,” Maria stated simply. “But you still are. So are you just gonna sit here and mope and feel sorry for yourself?”

He thought about it, and it didn’t take him long to answer. “Yeah.” He was getting pretty good at it, what with having done it for three days now.

Maria fell silent, a rare thing for her. She stared at him, and if it was possible , she actually looked sympathetic. She sat down beside him, for once not a bundle of unending energy, and rested her head on his shoulder. “Then I’ll sit here, too.”

He could’ve told her to leave, could’ve gotten up and walked into another room to be alone, but he just sat there, and she sat there with him. He wasn’t sure how much time passed, but it passed just like it always did. And Maria DeLuca didn’t leave.


****

Michael walked into the room and gripped the side of Macy’s crib. It was cold in there, because he always kept the door closed. The heat from the rest of the house didn’t circulate well in there sometimes. And it was dark, because the light bulbs in the overhead fan had gone out weeks ago, and he hadn’t replaced them yet. And he was alone. Again. Very alone.

Accepting that Isabel would never come back to him hadn’t been that hard, not in retrospect, not knowing what he knew now. Accepting that he’d never hold Macy in his arms again was something else entirely, and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever really accept it. But keeping that crib up wasn’t helping anything, and if Maria came back, it wouldn’t help her. They couldn’t live in the past, not when the future was still going to be so tough.

With no fanfare, he started to disassemble the crib. It came apart easily, quietly, piece by piece. Maybe they’d get it back out again someday, or maybe not. Didn’t matter. He’d never throw it away.








TBC . . .

-April
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Part 144

Postby April » Sun Nov 25, 2012 2:21 pm

Well, I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, because I sure did. Oh man, it was a weekend full of relaxation and college football for me. Seriously, I think I watched every single game that was on TV. It's becoming glaringly apparent to me that my love of football isn't just an interest or even just a passion; it's an obsession. Literally an obsession. And I think it's really pissing my stepdad off that I know more about it than he does, which is an added bonus. :lol:

I've managed to get a lot of writing done lately, though, too. In terms of posting, there is still a lot left to go of this story, but in terms of the actual writing . . . I sense that I'm on the wind-down, and that's pretty weird after all this time.

Enough blabbering from me. Thank you so much:

Ellie

simplyshiny

Novy

Grace


After all this time, your feedback still motivates me to continue!
:D








Part 144








Liz was so tired, the kind of tired that was so extreme that she didn’t even have the energy to sit down on the bed. All she could do was stand by the side of it, set the jewelry she’d worn that day down on the end table, and not pull the covers back, because pulling the covers back required too much work. She could tell that Max was the same way. He leaned against the wall, not saying anything, barely even breathing, it seemed.

And all of a sudden, he was there, just there beside her, his hands on her waist, spinning her around to face him. He kissed her forcefully but not roughly, and her entire body came to life again. She wasn’t sure what he was up to, but she was surprised when he pulled away just as suddenly as he’d swooped in and stared at her.

“What was that for?” she asked, smiling a little.

“For saving my ass today,” he replied, lowering his voice to mutter, “Every day.”

She didn’t understand. “What?”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets, looking away, seeming way more unsure of himself than he usually did. “We get to keep Garret because of you, because you’re doing a good job,” he revealed, sounding almost . . . ashamed. “I’m sorry for any time I ever said you weren’t.”

The mere fact that he would apologize for anything was enough to concern her. “You’re doing a good job, too,” she assured him, rubbing his shoulders and arms.

He shook his head and tried to shake away her touch.

“Hey,” she said quietly, trying not to push him. “What’s wrong?”

It took him a moment, a moment in which she could practically see him contemplating whether or not to say anything or just to stay silent. But finally, he opened up. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said in a rush, still not looking at her as he spoke the words. “I want to. I love him. I wanna take care of him and teach him right from wrong. But how do I do that when I don’t even know right from wrong?”

“No, you’re a different man now, Max,” she assured him quickly.

“Am I?” Finally, he looked her in the eye again, and she saw anger there, not directed towards her, but probably towards himself. “If you knew how I think sometimes . . .”

“You’re not a bad person anymore.” That was all she needed to know. Everyone had thoughts and everyone had feelings that they couldn’t control, but as long as his actions were good . . . wasn’t that enough?

“Maybe I’m not bad . . .” he acknowledged, staring off into space again. “But I don’t think I can be good.”

She wanted to say something, but there was nothing she could say when she saw the tears welling up in his eyes. She was caught so off-guard by it, so unused to seeing it, that she started to get choked up herself. She opened her arms wide to bring him in close, and together they sank down onto the bed. And he cried. Max Evans literally cried. And she felt bad for him, horrible for her husband.

Nobody was denying that Max had done some unthinkable things in the past. But he was doing some remarkable things in the present, even though he’d never believe that.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It had been a long night. Max had finally fallen asleep, but Liz stayed awake most of the night, worried about him. As much as he loved Garret, being his guardian, his father figure, was taking its toll on him. And despite the act he put on for everyone else, Max didn’t handle stress well. She wished she could handle it all for him . . . but then again, she didn’t handle stress well, either.

She got up and out of bed only because she wanted to have a breakfast cooked for him and Garret when they woke up. She went downstairs and was just getting the eggs scrambling when the doorbell rang. Confused as to who on earth would be there so early, she peeked out the peephole and saw a man in a beige business suit standing on the other side. She didn’t recognize him as anyone Max had worked with, yet at the same time . . . he looked familiar.

She opened the door slowly, cautiously, not sure what to expect.

“Hello,” he said, sounding friendly enough. He looked nervous, though, and even wiped his hands on his pants before extending one hand in greeting.

“Hi,” she returned unsurely, shaking his hand. “Can I help you?”

“Oh . . .” He smiled, shifting his weight nervously.

She studied him, and it dawned on her. That smile, that sort of crooked, awkward smile . . . she’d hardly ever seen it before, because the combination of alcohol and Isabel had chased it away. But when she had seen it, she’d seen it from Alex.

“Mr. Whitman?” she concluded, figuring he was the perfect age to be Alex’s dad. “Chuck Whitman.” She’d heard about him.

“That’s me,” he said, still smiling nervously. “I’m here to meet my grandson.”

She stared at him warily, not sure what to say.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tess loved it when Miley was around. Even with her injuries, she was still always the most lively person in the room. Even when she was sleepy, she still had more energy than all the adults in the room combined.

“Hi, Uncle Kyle,” she chirped. “Hi, Aunt Tess.”

“Hey, Miles,” Kyle replied, giving her an air high-five with his free hand while he stirred the scrambled eggs in the frying pan. “You look tired.”

“Well, she should be,” Tess said. “She had a big day yesterday. Didn’t you, Miley?”

“Yep.” She smiled and nodded proudly.

Tess cast a cautious glance at Michael, almost afraid of how haggard he looked. He probably hadn’t slept last night, not after going to see . . .

It made her skin crawl just thinking about it, how hard it must have been to go to that place and to see . . . him. When he’d told her he was going, she’d tried to dissuade him, then tried being supportive, and then finally decided that she had no clue whether it was the right course of action or not. But if Michael had felt the need to pay Alex a visit, then he’d done the right thing in going. She wasn’t about to ask how it had gone, though. Probably wasn’t the type of thing he wanted to rehash.

“How’re you doing?” she asked him, not really expecting an honest answer.

He shrugged, and the shrug said more than his “I’m fine,” did.

She shuffled towards him, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “I thought that party was exhausting yesterday and all I did was sit there and eat cake.”

He smiled a little.

“Hey, you guys want some breakfast?” Kyle called from the kitchen. “We got plenty.”

“What’re you havin’?” Michael asked, making his way towards him.

“Well, it started off as scrambled eggs, and now it’s . . .” Kyle shook his head vigorously. “It’s somethin’ else.”

“Something else sounds good,” Michael decided. “I’ll give it a shot.”

“You, too, Miley?” Kyle asked.

“Uh-huh.” Miley seemed relatively uninterested as she reached up and tugged on Tess’s hand. “Aunt Tess?” she whispered.

Tess bent down. “What, sweetie?”

Miley shifted around unsurely for a moment, then asked, “Where’s my mama?” But she must have whispered it a little too loudly, because Tess glanced at Michael again, and he was staring at her, clearly having heard what she’d just asked.

But what was she supposed to say? What were any of them supposed to say? At times like these, it would’ve been nice to have a parenting—or at least god-parenting—handbook.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chuck Whitman was practically in a trance as he gazed at his grandson, watching in awe as he played with toy trucks in the living room. “Wow,” he said, an astonished tone to his voice. “He’s really something.”

He always has been, Max thought, bristling. “Yeah. He is.” He slapped a plate of toast on the table in front of the uninvited guest, more than happy to leave him with the burnt pieces. But Liz was being too nice for her own good, and she switched plates with him, giving him the un-burnt stuff. Max rolled his eyes.

“It’s eerie how much he looks like my father,” Chuck said, completely ignoring the food.

“Does he?” Liz asked, pretending to be all interested.

“Oh, yeah. My father used to show me pictures of himself when he was a boy this age. Spittin’ image, this one.”

Liz smiled. “That’s pretty neat.”

Out of nowhere, Max blurted, “I always thought he looked like me,” and that garnered a semi-confused, most sympathetic look from Liz. But Chuck Whitman didn’t seem to hear him.

“Hey, Jarret,” he called.

“It’s Garret,” Max corrected sharply. What a dick. The guy didn’t even know his name.

“Come on over here, spend some time with your grandpa.” Chuck smiled cheesily and opened his arms as if he were expecting a hug. But Garret hugged his truck to his chest instead and shook his head defiantly. Max grinned. Smart boy.

“Garret, it’s okay,” Liz urged, but still, he didn’t come join them. “He’s kinda shy.”

“No, he’s not,” Max grumbled, stealing Chuck’s toast from him since he didn’t seem too interested in it. He took a big bite and savored it. Then, deciding he didn’t want anymore, he slid it back to him.

“He’ll get used to me,” Chuck said, finally looking away long enough to look at the food in front of him. He seemed completely perplexed.

“Here,” Liz said, sliding the burnt slices back towards him.

“Thanks.” He took one bite, cringed, then took a gulp of water to wash it down. “So he’s four years old now, right?” he asked.

“As of yesterday,” Liz replied.

“Hmm, I’ll have to get him a birthday present.”

Max grunted. “With what money?”

Liz gave him an incredulous look.

“I’m sure I can find something.” It was hard to tell whether Chuck’s confidence was genuine or all just an act. He reminded Max of Alex, or at least the Alex who had existed before marrying Isabel. He wasn’t just a doormat, but he wasn’t a tough guy, either. He was just . . . average. In the middle. And being in the middle was a hell of a lot trickier than being one extreme or the other.

“We got him a lot of presents,” Max made sure to point out. “Including those trucks.”

“That’s nice of you,” Chuck said. “I’m sure Alex regrets not being here with him.”

“Yeah.” Liz bit her bottom lip, approaching the subject nervously. “How much do you know about . . . what your son did?”

Chuck sighed, lowering his voice so that Garret couldn’t hear. “He wrote me some letters, let me know he’d developed an alcohol problem over the years. He said he’ll be in jail for a few years because he drove drunk and hurt someone.”

Liz met his eyes helplessly. “It’s a little more than that.”

“He killed someone,” Max blurted, not about to sugarcoat the story for a man he didn’t know or like. “A baby who wasn’t even a year old.”

Chuck’s mouth dropped open, and tears sprung to his eyes. “What?”

“He’s gonna spend more than a few years in jail,” Max informed him, “especially ‘cause he tried to cover it up.”

“Max . . .” Liz got up, grabbed his arm, and pulled him away from the table. “Maybe you should try to be a little more sensitive,” she suggested in a hushed tone.

“Why?”

“You’re talking about his son, you know.”

“I don’t care. He shouldn’t be here.”

Liz sighed frustratedly. “He just wants to visit.”

“No, he wants more.” Max watched their visitor watching Garret, and his intentions were as clear as day. He wasn’t trying to hide it.

“Should I go see him?” Chuck pondered, mostly to himself.

Max answered anyway. “Alex? No. I’m the only one who ever does.”

Chuck blinked back tears and cleared his throat. “So you two were close before . . . all of this?”

Max sat back down beside him, leaning back, interlocking his hands behind his head. “He was my best friend.”

Chuck surveyed him skeptically, seemingly not too thrilled about that notion. “How did he . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head sadly, suddenly having trouble getting a full sentence out. “Was it because of me? Was it my fault? Did he start drinking because . . . because I went to jail?”

Liz stood behind Max, placing her hands on his shoulders, probably hoping to try to keep him calm. But he wasn’t calm. “It was mainly because of Isabel,” she explained softly. “They had lots of family problems. They never really got along.”

“They didn’t?” Chuck’s face was a mask of confusion. “I never knew . . .” He trailed off.

“My sister lies as a profession,” Max informed him bluntly. “She never loved your son.”

“But I thought . . .”

“It’s a very long, drawn-out story, one that I don’t feel like telling you while a toddler is within earshot. Suffice to say, if you hadn’t been locked up in the Sunshine State all these years, you would’ve heard the name Michael Guerin a lot.”

“What?”

“Mr. Whitman,” Liz jumped in again, all too politely, “I’ll tell you more later, but Max is right. Garret doesn’t need to overhear any of this.”

Chuck was clearly growing agitated. He looked around, throwing his hands up in the air. “Well, where is Isabel anyway? Maybe I should talk to her.”

Max laughed at his stupidity. “Good luck with that.”

“How is she?”

“Crazy.”

“She took off, Mr. Whitman,” Liz explained. “That’s why Max and I have been taking care of Garret.”

“For over a month now,” he made sure to add.

“She’s not around. She’s not coming back.”

It was a lot of information to take in, but Chuck appeared to be processing it. He nodded, swallowing hard, and said, “Then maybe it’s a good thing I did.”

“I highly doubt that,” Max grumbled.

“Max . . .”

But Liz couldn’t hold him back this time. “Garret, go upstairs,” he told his nephew. Garret didn’t ask why. He knew that tone well enough to just go. He even left his trucks behind.

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” Max said, standing up, glaring down at the older man. “We both know why you’re here.”

But Chuck continued to play dumb. “I wanna see my grandson.”

“Right, and a few weeks from now, you’re gonna want custody of him.” It wasn’t that damn hard to figure out. “But I’m not gonna let that happen. You don’t even know him. You don’t love him like we do.”

“I haven’t had the chance.”

“Right, because you’ve been in prison.” The dumbass had no one to blame but himself.

Chuck slowly rose to his feet, and he towered over Max. The visual was unsettling.

“I made a mistake,” Chuck said earnestly. “Haven’t you ever made a mistake before?”

Max forced himself to maintain eye contact, but inside, the question resonated, playing on all his darkest demons and worst fears. Did he know? Did Chuck Whitman know who he was dealing with? Was it that obvious?

“I honestly never considered seeking custody of Garret,” Chuck promised, but Max still didn’t believe him.

“Don’t lie to me,” he warned. “I’m smarter than you are, so I see right through it.”

Chuck smirked, then laughed a little. He clearly had more of a backbone than Alex. “Okay. Fine,” he said, sounding completely unnerved by all of Max’s bravado. “I would like the two of you to contemplate letting me be in Garret’s life. If both of his parents can’t be with him . . .”

“His godparents sure as hell will be,” Max vowed vehemently.

“Oh god,” Liz whimpered, clearly upset by the trajectory this conversation had taken. “Mr. Whitman, I understand why you wanna get to know him; but Max and I care about him so much, and we’ve been working really hard to give him some semblance of a normal life since all of this started going down.”

Understatement, Max thought. His whole life revolved around that boy.

“I just don’t think he needs to be . . .” Liz paused, searching for the right word. “. . . uprooted again. If you wanna get to know him and spend time with him, that’s fine, but--”

“No, it’s not,” Max cut in. He knew this type. Chuck Whitman was a businessman, a schemer, and Max had made a living by ordering businessmen and schemers around not even all that long ago. “Liz, the man’s a convicted white-collar criminal. Not to mention, last time I checked, alcoholism runs in the family.”

Chuck shifted uncomfortably, folding his arms over his chest. Clearly, judging body language alone, Max had struck a nerve. “Listen, I want both of you to understand how deeply appreciative I am of everything you’ve done,” he said, laying it on thick. “But you’re young. You’ll have your own children someday. You shouldn’t be tied down with such a huge burden.”

“You think Garret’s a burden?” Max roared, clenching his hands into fists at his sides. That alone was proof that Chuck really didn’t get any of this. He laughed angrily, then stepped forward threateningly, causing Chuck to step back. “Get out of my house.”

Even if he did regret his choice of words, Chuck didn’t show it. He walked away calmly, right out the door he’d come in, and it was almost as if he’d never been there.

But he would be back. Max was sure of it.









TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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Part 145

Postby April » Sun Dec 09, 2012 7:56 pm

Hey, guys! I wanted to update earlier today, but my Internet was down. (What else is new?) So it's a bit delayed, but here it is.


Ellie:
I will take this time to admit ... I feel kinda bad for Liz and Max - OMG, I just threw up in my mouth.


Wow, hell must have frozen over as you typed that! :lol:

It's obvious they want to give Garrett a positive and loving upbringing, but Max shooting his mouth off and his aggression may have just ruined their opportunity to.


Max is obviously a pretty passionate and determined guy, especially when he feels threatened. And Chuck Whitman threatens the one thing he and Liz both care about most at this point: their guardianship of Garret. So yeah, he did say some aggressive things in the heat of the moment. All of them were pretty much true, though.

Novy:
Chuck seems like someone who could be paid off if Max had the right amount of money. I don't get his angle. He's such a sleaze.


Chuck is basically a guy who has nothing: No money, no job, no family. Except for Garret. His intentions are actually pure. He wants to know his grandson. But he has a history--maybe it's not a history as marred as Max's and certainly not as marred as Alex's, but it's a history nonetheless, and because of it, he's in no situation to get to know Garret right now.

This story always gives me some good paper topic ideas.


:lol: I'm glad.

It will be sad to see this story come to an end but an eager to see you what you have written.


Well, there's still a lot left to go. I'm determined to not rush the ending. I want it to feel real.

Grace:
I liked this part, but Max should have handled that better.


He definitely said some things on impulse, whereas Liz was trying the calmer situation management approach.


Thanks for the feedback!

Seems like this part is slightly longer than the last ones have been. I just couldn't find the right spot to cut it off.









Part 145








When Michael decided to take Miley to the park that day, he thought he’d make her feel better. She’d been down in the dumps all day, missing Maria. He wasn’t sure what had brought it on so suddenly, but she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her mom. Maybe it was just because she’d been gone so long now, nearly a month and a half.

But the park didn’t make Miley feel better, because there were a bunch of little kids at the park, kids running around, kids who didn’t have injured spines holding them back. And Miley couldn’t run with them. Probably didn’t help that most of those kids were there with their mothers, too.

Michael sat on a bench with her, holding Frank by his leash as he roamed a bit in front of them. It wasn’t hot out, but he was overweight and panting, and eventually he just laid down in the grass, rolled over onto his back, and kicked his legs in the air. That got a little giggle out of Miley. But just a little one. And then she looked sad again.

Michael cleared his throat, scooting a little closer to her. He knew he couldn’t just not say anything any longer. It was time for some kind of conversation about what was going on, no matter how much he dreaded it.

“So I heard what you said to Aunt Tess today,” he began, wrapping his free arm around her shoulders. “You asked where Mama is.”

Miley looked away from Frank, only to look down at her own lap. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. We talked about it, remember?” He sighed, wishing it had been enough. “We probably should’ve talked some more. She went away, sort of like to a hospital.”

Miley frowned and quietly asked, “Is she sick?”

“Yeah, kind of.” A feeling of déjà vu swept over him, and he was reminded of the conversation he’d had with Miley when he’d had to tell her that her Grandma Amy had cancer. It hadn’t been all that different from this. “She got really sick after Macy died.”

Miley flinched, and Michael regretted even saying that last word.

“But she’ll get better,” he quickly added, “and she’ll come back . . . and things will be good again.” Maybe he shouldn’t have made that last part sound like so much of a promise. He had no idea what things would be like when she got back, or if they would ever be a family again, let alone a good one.

Miley still didn’t look up at him, but she didn’t have to. He could see tears glistening in her young, beautiful eyes. “Does she still love me?” she squeaked out.

The question broke his heart into pieces, and he was so thankful Maria wasn’t there to hear it. “Of course,” he assured her, hugging her close to his side. “Sweetheart, she loves you more than anything, just like I do.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, murmuring against her hair, “Just like I do.” He just held her for a minute, adoring her, then slowly loosened his hold on her. But he stayed close. “That’s why she went away,” he said, “because she loves you so much, because she wants to get better so she can be here with you again.” Maria had become a different person to him in the aftermath of the accident, but even though he didn't know her as well as he used to, he knew her love for Miley never wavered. And he needed Miley to know that, too. “She loves you more than anything. Promise me you’ll always remember that.”

Miley let that sink in for a minute, then looked up at him and managed a smile. “I promise.” The tears in her eyes were gone. Michael smiled back at her. There she was, his tough little girl.

It was a nice and necessary moment, but of course it was ruined when the arrogant voice of Max Evans chimed behind them. “Wow,” he said. “You are good.”

Michael didn’t even turn around to look at him. “Miley,” he said, “why don’t you walk Frank around?”

“Okay.” She carefully got down from the bench, took the leash in one hand, and used her cane in the other.

“Stay where I can see you,” he said, although he wasn’t too worried. Frank was a low-maintenance dog, wouldn’t be too much for her. Besides, he couldn’t hover over her all the time. He had to give her some space, some room to grow.

Once she was without of earshot, he grumbled, “What do you want, Max?” He felt like he’d dealt with this guy way too much lately.

“Wait a minute,” Max said, sitting down beside him. “I have to swallow my pride.” He actually gulped audibly before starting in. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but . . .” He drew it out over-dramatically. “Michael . . . help me be more like you.” He shuddered after he said the words.

Michael made a face. “What?”

“No, not like your personality. God no.” Max laughed. “But your . . . parenting skills. I need some of that.”

Michael shifted uncomfortably, his eyes on Miley as she walked Frank around a sandbox where a bunch of kids her age were playing. “I’m not an expert.”

“Uh, yeah, Super Sperm, you kinda are.” Max sighed heavily. “Fuckin’ Chuck Whitman comes rolling into town this morning, all high and mighty, thinkin’ he’s just gonna insert himself into Garret’s life.” He grunted angrily. “I’m not lettin’ that happen.” Even though he sounded confident, that bravado faded fast, and a rare moment of honesty emerged. “But I don’t know what to do.”

Michael didn’t know whether or not he should say anything. This was, after all, the guy that had taken advantage of Maria. This was Isabel’s brother, Phillip Evans’s son. He wasn’t a good guy.

But it wasn’t really about Max at all; it was about Garret.

“Nobody knows what they’re doing,” he relented to saying, “not when it comes to being a dad. I don’t, not ever. You figure it out as you go along. You learn from your mistakes and celebrate your successes. And then you move on. That’s about all you can do.”

Max stared at him incredulously, clearly unimpressed. “That’s it?” he huffed. “That’s the grand advice from the great Michael Guerin?”

“I never said it was grand,” he pointed out. “And I never said I was great.”

Max laughed a little. “No, you never said that.”

Michael frowned, knowing Isabel probably had.

Max slumped on the bench, looking more worn for wear than Michael could ever remember. “It’s not fair,” he lamented.

“What?”

“You. Just you in general. And me.” He sat up straighter again, but not as straight as he normally would have. “I know I’m a monster,” he openly acknowledged. “But I’m a good uncle. I love my nephew. I’d do anything for him. And you’re a good dad. Everyone knows it. Doesn’t matter what other shit you pull, ‘cause everyone respects you for the way you are with her.”

Michael gazed at Miley, and he saw her smile, a real smile as Frank started digging at the ground.

“But I have to work twice as hard to be half as good,” Max confessed. “It’s exhausting.”

Michael knew a thing or two about exhaustion, about trying so hard to make things good only to have it blow up in your face. Sometimes literally. “It’s worth it,” he decided, forgetting for just one second that he hated the guy sitting next to him.

“I guess,” Max agreed, just sitting there for a moment before he reverted to form and said, “Oh, well. At least I’m better-looking.”

Michael rolled his eyes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Whitman.”

Alex was mopping the hall when he heard his name. His least favorite guard was motioning for him to put down the mop and go with him. Alex handed the mop off to one of the few inmates who he actually sort of considered a friend—a guy who would only be in there for a few more weeks because of drug charges—and left his daily work assignment for something that was probably way more stressful.

“Man,” the guard grumbled, leading him into the visiting room, “for a babykiller, you sure do get a lot of visitors.”

Alex had learned not to react to that: babykiller. That’s what he was. And whenever he tried to argue that he wasn’t, he usually ended up getting hit, either by the other prisoners or by the guards themselves. People really didn’t like him there.

The guard groaned, pushing open the door. “I don’t get it.”

Alex stepped into the room, expecting, as usual, to see Max there. But the person he saw truly came as a surprise.

“Dad?”

For a moment, his dad stood up and smiled, but then the smile fell, and he sat back down, apparently remembering where he was and that there was nothing to smile about.

“Dad . . .” Alex bent down and hugged him. God, it’d been years. It felt . . . kind of weird, but still familiar. “What’re you doin’ here?” He sat down across from him, still shocked to be in the same room with him after so many years apart. “I told Isabel to tell you not to come.”

His father shrugged halfheartedly. “Guess I didn’t get the message.”

Alex sighed. Not surprising. He’d never been able to rely on Isabel. “So I take it you heard about what happened, about . . . what I did.”

His father swallowed hard. “Yep.” There was a look of pain and grief in his eyes. “Your brother-in-law and his wife told me.”

“You met Max and Liz?”

“And Garret.” The look of pain receded a bit to be replaced by a momentary pride. “He’s incredible.”

“Yeah, he is.” Alex pictured his son, his curly hair, his all too rare smile . . . and he missed him. Missed him more than anything. “Is he okay? Is he good?” He knew what Max told him, but he wanted to know more.

“Seems like it,” his father replied. “I didn’t really get to interact with him much. Max was . . . really protective.”

That was good to hear. “Yeah, he’s like a dad to him.” He winced as he said the words, because it sunk in that Max had always been more of a dad to him. Always. He hated himself more than a little for that.

As if he could read his mind, or at least tell what he was thinking, even after years spent apart, his father reminded him, “You’re his dad.”

Alex grunted. “Not a very good one.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Look around. Look where I am. Look what I’ve done. He’s better off without me.”

Chuck did look around, then, contemplatively, he said, “Well . . . maybe I can try to be there for him.”

As much as he loved his dad, Alex was wary of the idea, so he flat-out asked, “Do you still drink?”

Chuck shifted uncomfortably. “I’ve only been out of jail for a week.”

“But do you still drink?”

His father’s silence was all the answer he needed.

“Just leave him alone then,” he said. “Sorry, I know that’s not what you wanna hear, but . . . you didn’t do many any favors.”

“So I led you to this?”

“No.”

“Then what did? How did things get so bad?”

Alex chuckled angrily. “Oh, things were always bad.”

“What about Isabel?”

He grunted. “What about her? I love her. I shouldn’t. End of story.” The saddest part was, he knew the story would never change.

His father sighed heavily. “I never knew she was so bad.”

“You never knew her.” Like so many others, Chuck had believed that, in addition to being smart and beautiful, Isabel Evans might also have been kind. Like so many others, Chuck had been an idiot. “The girl who lived with us in Florida . . . that wasn’t her,” Alex informed him, content to just give him the abridged version. “Not really. It was all an act. Truth is, she’s the only person I know who’s more screwed up than I am.” And given that he was the one rotting in prison, that was saying something.

“And she just abandoned Garret, huh?”

“Probably the best thing for him.”

His father stared at him intently, not letting up on his probing for answers. “What did she do to you? What did she do to make you like this?”

Again, he didn’t want to launch into the whole story, retell every single chapter, so he kept it short and simple, even though nothing about his relationship with Isabel had ever been simple. “She didn’t love me. She had a kid with me, married me . . . but she never loved me. And I couldn’t stop . . .” Even just talking about it, he felt those feelings again, those burning, consuming feelings that he hated but couldn’t get rid of. “What I felt for her . . . I couldn’t shut it off.”

“So you drank.”

“And drove. Can’t leave out that part. That’s what makes me the villain of the piece.” He smiled sadly. Very sadly. He couldn’t look at his dad anymore, so he looked down at his lap and mumbled, “You must be so disappointed in me.”

“No,” Chuck said immediately, but it had to be a lie. “I love you. You’re my son. I will always love you, no matter what you do, just like you’ll always love your son.”

“How can you just look past everything I’ve done?”

“I’ve done things, too.”

Alex shook his head. “It’s not the same. It doesn’t even compare.” White collar criminal activity really couldn’t hold a candle to this. There were homicidal murderers in that prison who looked down on him, who thought he was worse than they were, even though . . . it really had been an accident.

“I know,” his father acknowledged finally. “I know it’s not the same. But it’s like I said, Alex . . . I love you. And love’s a complicated thing.”

Alex nodded. If anyone knew that, it was him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria had never been much of an artist. Back when other kids her age had been learning how to apply shading effects to drawings, she’d happily still been finger-painting. Sure, she could doodle just fine, but when it came to actual creative expression, she’d always been content to just suck at it. Even getting involved with Michael hadn’t motivated her to step up her skills, though she’d always respected and admired his artistic abilities. However, spare time and boredom was quite the motivator. She’d exhausted most of the reading material at Cresthaven and had spent the last few days painting and drawing instead. The staff said it was very therapeutic . . . and they were actually right. She still wasn’t a great artist by any means, but she did end up doing a nice painting of her house that she’d take home to Miley, and now she was working on a drawing of Frank. She liked to sit outside in the courtyard and work on it. It felt nice out there.

One of the other patients, a woman named Ivy who’d overdosed on heroin and already made remarkable progress in just three weeks, approached Maria as she was drawing and leaned over to take a closer look, casting a shadow on the page. “That’s good,” she remarked.

“Oh, I’m not very artistic,” Maria admitted. As cute as the drawing was, it wasn’t realistic. Frank looked like a cartoon pug, not an actual one.

“I think it’s good,” Ivy insisted, smiling as she walked away with a cup of coffee in her hand.

“Thanks.” Maria finished up by drawing his tail, then closed the little book that had become her sketchbook and stood up and stretched her limbs. It was a really nice day. She actually felt like going for a walk. But the courtyard, as nice as it was, only went so far. She felt restless, sort of like she wanted to be somewhere else. And she hadn’t felt that way in a long time. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, she wasn’t sure, so she ignored the restlessness altogether and went back inside. She traipsed down the hallway and was about to slip into her room when someone caught her eye. Another resident. She was new, clearly, because she was fumbling with the key to her room, unable to get the door unlocked. But that wasn’t want caught Maria’s attention.

It was . . . her. Wasn’t it? Isabel.

Tall. Long blonde hair. She couldn’t see her face well, but she knew. She knew it was her. All her nerves flared up, and she dropped her sketchbook on the ground. She marched forward and grabbed Isabel by the arm. Only it wasn’t Isabel. The face Maria saw was a face she’d never seen before, eyes that were much more drugged out than Isabel’s had ever been.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, loosening her grip before letting go altogether. “I thought you were someone else.” She felt a momentary relief, only to get nervous again a few seconds later. Was she going crazy or something?

“Hey, I’m Elise,” the woman said halfheartedly, finally forcing her door open. “I’m new here.”

“Yeah.” Maria was already off in her own head, wondering if this was some sort of sign. Was she finally ready to deal with the whole Isabel situation? She’d confronted this girl without a second thought, after all. Maybe that meant something. “I’ll save you a seat at dinner,” she promised pathetically, already heading back to her room. She picked up her book, clutching it tightly to her chest. Maybe all the drawing was a sign in enough itself. Maybe it signified something about . . . about Michael.

She slipped into her room and shut the door, letting out a heavy sigh. Michael. And Isabel. Michael and Isabel. Was she seriously restless enough to dive into that?

****

“Do you get it?”

Maria cringed, glancing up from the math book with embarrassment. “No.”

Michael slouched forward, clearly getting frustrated and impatient. Who could blame him? They’d been at this for almost an hour now.

“What? It’s hard,” she whined.

“It’s college algebra.”

“Which may make perfect sense to you, because you’re good at everything, but to me . . . these numbers just go over my head. DeLucas are notoriously bad at math and good in bed. That’s just the way it is.”

“That’s an overshare,” Michael said. “Thanks.”

She groaned, doodling a heart on the notes that were somehow supposed to help her study for the upcoming test. “How the hell am I gonna pass this class?”

“Study harder,” he suggested. As though it were that simple.


But I’m an idiot, she thought, way too cool to say the words out loud in the middle of the Student Union coffee shop. “Or I could just cheat off you.”

“No, I don’t go for cheating.”

“Hmm, then you might not wanna date an Evans.”

He frowned, leaning back in his chair. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s just . . . Tess and Max, you and Isabel . . . it’s enough to make me wanna gag.” She’d only been Michael’s friend for a few months now, since the start of the semester, and already she could tell that he deserved better than that vapid whore.

“Well, I don’t like Max, either,” he admitted, “but you don’t know Isabel the way I do. She’s . . .”

“Bendy?” She smirked at her own wittiness.

Even he cracked a grin. “Among other things. But it’s more than that. I’m in love with her.”

Maria was taken aback by that. The L-word? So soon? “Wow.” She wasn’t even sure how to respond.

“Yeah.” Michael stared off into space for a moment, perhaps just as surprised by what he’d just said as she was. Maybe it was the first time he’d said it out loud.

Maria tapped her pencil against her dreaded math book, not sure if she preferred to talk about Isabel or her least favorite class. But math was quickly forgotten when she saw Isabel approaching, wearing a sweatshirt that looked way too big for her and had to be Michael’s. “Speak of the devil . . .” she muttered, closing the book altogether.

Michael glanced up and smiled when he saw her.

“Hey, baby,” she said, immediately bending down to plant a kiss on his lips.

“Hey.” He randomly stroked her hair, and Maria wondered if any guy had ever liked her enough to just touch her hair like that. Probably not. Probably never.

“You done with class?” he asked.

“Thankfully.” She took a look at Maria and said, “So what do we have here?”

“Tutoring,” Michael replied, never taking his eyes off her.

She placed one hand on his shoulder, rubbing affectionately. “That is
so generous of you, giving your time, helping the academically needy.”

“Kinda need you to leave,” Maria snapped. She couldn’t very well study with her there.

“What was that?” Isabel asked, smiling coldly.

“Nothing.” She wasn’t about to get in a catfight with Michael sitting right there.

Isabel smiled down at Michael again, taking her turn stroking his hair now. “Mmm, honey, would you go get me some coffee? I don’t really care what kind; I just need some energy after last night.”

Maria rolled her eyes, resisting the urge to puke.

“Sure,” Michael said, already standing up. “I’ll be back.”


Great, Maria thought, opening up her book again. Now I have to make small-talk.

Isabel took Michael’s seat, gazing at him as he went to get her beverage. “Isn’t he enticing?”

Maria jotted down one of the sample problems, then got to work solving it, even though she still had no idea how. She just wanted to look busy. “So you two have officially boned now?” she concluded.

“Numerous times, various ways,” Isabel openly bragged. “Don’t you just love when a guy looks at you and touches you like you’re the most precious thing in the universe?”

Maria didn’t say anything. She knew exactly what Isabel was doing. She was trying to rub it in her face that she had Mr. Wonderful and Maria had whoever was available at the Sigma Chi party tomorrow night.

“Or . . . do you not associate with those kinds of guys?”

If Michael wasn’t around, she would’ve given Isabel a piece of her mind, but she didn’t want him to be put in a position where he had to choose between his friend and his girlfriend in an argument . . . especially because there was no doubt who he’d choose. “Isabel,” Maria said, “you good with algebra?”

“Yep.”

“Wanna help me?”

“Nope.” Once again, her eyes locked on Michael. “You know, I’m kinda surprised he even showed up to help you today. He was exhausted. We could’ve just cuddled all morning.”

“Well, maybe he just likes me more than you.”

Isabel’s eyes gleamed with mischief. “Let’s test that theory.” She got up from the table and made her way over to her boyfriend. Maria turned and watched as she leaned in and said something quietly, something that made him grin, whisper something back, and almost instantly revert to the hormonal collegiate male he was underneath everything else. Maria knew right then and there that tutoring was over.

He came back over to the table a minute later. Isabel didn’t have her coffee, and Isabel didn’t seem to care.

“Hey, Maria,” he said, “I gotta take off. You think we can finish this tomorrow?”

“Whatever. Go get it in.”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“Sure it is,” Isabel chirped. “Bye, Maria.” She grabbed Michael’s hand and practically dragged him away. They probably wouldn’t even make it back to his dorm before they got down.

Maria stared down at the combination of numbers and letters in her book, not really looking at them anymore. What was the point? Michael had made his choice for the day, and she couldn’t do anything without him.


****

Yeah. She was restless enough.

Maria made the familiar trek to Dr. Carlson’s office, although it wasn’t so much a trek this time as it was a mad dash. No more of this just sitting around, drawing and reading and not doing anything. Dr. Carlson had been urging her to this point for weeks, trying not so subtly to talk about the man who claimed to love her and the woman she’d caught him in bed with. And now he was going to get an earful.

“Dr. Carlson?” She realized too late after she barged into his office that he wasn’t alone. “Oh, sorry.” Her first inclination was that she’d just interrupted a therapy session with another patient, but the woman sitting on the other side of his desk just gave her a friendly smile. There was an instant well-adjustedness about her that told Maria they weren’t alike on some level.

“Maria,” Dr. Carlson said, sounding surprised. “We don’t have an appointment today.”

“I know.” She felt embarrassed and suddenly wondered if she should have just held off on all of this. “I’m sorry, I—I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s fine,” the woman said, turning back to the doctor. “I’ll see you at home.”

He gave her a little wave, and she exited the office quietly and gracefully.

“Is that your wife?” Maria guessed. She looked younger than Dr. Carlson, but not by much.

“Sure is,” he replied. “Married twenty-nine years now.”

In the pit of her stomach, Maria felt the pangs of longing. “Must be nice.” She couldn’t even manage to get to the altar at all.

“You look like you need to talk,” Dr. Carlson observed.

“Constantly.” She shut the door and took a seat. “Do you mind?”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“Are you seeing other patients today?”

“Not until after lunch.”

She glanced at the clock and felt even worse for interrupting. Lunchtime. Probably his only break during an otherwise long day, and here she was, about to yammer.

“Go ahead,” he urged as if sensing her hesitance.

She sighed, fiddling with the bracelet she was wearing so that she didn’t have to look at him. “I don’t even know where to begin.” Michael was such a big part of her life, such a big part of her, and unfortunately, she was beginning to accept the fact that Isabel was a big part of him, and . . . it was all just so . . . big. Just so big. And trying to take that bigness and put it into words was practically impossible and . . .

“I hate her.” She didn’t know the words were coming until they were already out. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t said the same thing many times over the years, but she’d never meant it quite this much, never felt it quite this much.

“Who?”

“Isabel.” Just saying the name made her blood boil. “Isabel Evans, or Whitman, or whatever she’s going by now. I hate her so much, I can barely say her name. And I don’t know what happened in her life to make her so screwed up, but . . . I just don’t care.” She pictured her face in her mind, and she wanted to . . . to just smash it. Or something. Anything. “I wish she wasn’t in the world, or at least not in my world. And Michael’s.” Her voice wavered when she said his name. “But she’s always been there. And I think she’s always gonna be.”

Dr. Carlson frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“Because he . . .” A lump rose up in her throat, but she forced herself to keep talking. “He loved her. He didn’t just like her or date her. He loved her. He wanted to marry her.”

“Couldn’t the same be said about you?”

“Yeah. But . . . it could be said about her first.” And therein stemmed the root of so many insecurities that threatened to overwhelm her. She took a deep breath and made herself keep going. “She was his first love, his first . . . god, his first time, even. I don’t think you ever really forget that person.” She felt the tears stinging her eyes, but she was past the point of caring whether they fell or not. “‘Cause, see, he’s that person for me. I mean, no, not my first time, but . . . he’s the first person, the only person, I ever loved. And he can’t say that about me.”

“How does that make you feel?”

It made her feel . . . so many things. So many things at once. But she had to narrow it down. “Insecure.” She shook her head, wondering if she’d ever actually been strong, brave, determined, all those things that, unfortunately, Isabel Evans was. “I’ve always been a lot more insecure than people realize,” she divulged. “But for a long time, Michael made me feel like he could take care of everything, like everything would be alright, because he’d make sure of it.” Whether it was something minor like that damn college algebra final or something major like their family . . . he’d always had it under control, had her life under control for her. “And I know it’s not fair to put all that responsibility on him, but . . .” The tears started to fall as she pictured his face in her mind, his once reassuring smile. “That’s just him. Or at least it used to be. But gradually, little things started to creep in, and sometimes I worried, because I noticed he wasn’t hating her the way I was hating her. But still, I never thought he’d . . .” She trailed off, shuddering as the feelings got more and more difficult to articulate.

“Well, maybe he just likes me more than you.”

“Let’s test that theory.”

Let’s not.


She started to cry more willingly, figuring she needed to if she were going to make it through this. “When I walked into that bedroom and saw him on top of her, it was like every fear and insecurity I’ve had for the past four years materialized.” She shook her head, trying to shake away the memory, but that wasn’t possible. It would never be possible.

She reached for a tissue, but there wasn’t one, so she wiped her cheeks with her hands instead. “I’m not proud of the way I reacted to it, but . . . it just hurt so much. And I know it doesn’t even compare to what else I’ve been through these past few months, because nothing compares to losing Macy, but . . . it was just . . . it was just too much.” She bent forward, holding her head in her hands, her entire body shaking as the sobs worked their way through her. If Michael could see her now, he’d think she’d just gotten worse. But this was the most honest she’d been with herself and anyone else for a long time.

Once she’d pulled it together and calmed herself down a bit, Dr. Carlson carefully asked, “Do you think he loves you?”

She thought about it a minute, then nodded. “He does. I know he does.” But then she reconsidered, because she’d overdosed, and she was here, and he was taking care of Miley by himself now, and that had to be taking its toll. He wasn’t the only one who’d made mistakes. “I just don’t know if that’s enough anymore.”

Dr. Carlson leaned forward, folding his hands together in his classic inquiry pose. “Do you think he loves Isabel?”

She shifted uncomfortably, knowing it was the same questions she’d subconsciously been asking herself for the past four years. “He used to,” she said, just like she always did. “I don’t know, maybe a part of him always will. I don’t . . .” She shook her head, completely unsure. “I guess he’s the only one who can answer that.”

Dr. Carlson nodded pensively, looking her right in the eye when he said, “Maria, I’m about to suggest something you might not like.”

She had a feeling she already knew what it was.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There really wasn’t much of a point in staying up, not when Miley was already asleep, so Michael went to bed early that night. He knew he should have stayed up and gotten some cleaning done around the house, but he didn’t have the energy. He just wanted to hit the mattress, nod off, and hope that he had a good dream. He either had good ones or nightmares. There was no in between anymore.

But unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to see which route the dream would take, because his phone rang, waking him up shortly after he’d fallen asleep. He glanced at the clock before reaching over to grab it. Only 10:15. Not really that late. Couldn’t complain.

“Hello?” he answered, remaining in his lying down position.

No response.

“Hello?” It was probably just some prank call, probably from some stupid high school kids who had nothing better to do.

Or maybe not.

Something told him not to put down the phone. So he sat up slowly in bed, holding it tightly to his ear, listening for any sounds that might tell him what he was hoping for, that it was her. But there was just silence, so finally he came right out and said, “Maria?”

It took her a moment, but finally she said, “Hey.” Her voice was quiet, but calm. Or at least she sounded calm.

He, on the other hand, was not calm. His heart rate sped up to about three times its normal rate, and he suddenly felt tongue-tied. “Hey,” he returned lamely, desperately trying to think of what to say, praying he didn’t say the wrong thing. “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” she replied. “You?”

He was simultaneously terrified and overjoyed that he was talking to her, actually hearing her voice for the first time in six weeks now. But he wasn’t about to tell her that. “I’m okay, too.”

“Good.” There was another moment of awkward silence before she asked, “How’s Miley?”

“She’s good. We went to the park today.” He remembered what she’d said at the park, the talk they’d had, and even though he didn’t want to make Maria feel bad for being away, he wanted her to know there was a void. “She misses you,” he said simply, hoping that wouldn’t make her feel too bad or too guilty.

He heard her sniffle, and she said, “I miss her, too.”

“Do you wanna talk to her? She just went to sleep, but I could wake her up.”

“No. Don’t wake her,” she said quickly. “Listen, I called because . . . my doctor, Dr. Carlson . . . he thinks it would be a good idea for us to have a joint therapy session.”

“A joint session?” Just when he’d been settling into the conversation . . . this. Oh, man.

“Yeah. Like you’d come in and we’d both talk to him. Together.”

Immediately, he felt butterflies in his stomach. “Oh.”

“Yeah. So would you?”

He was going to get grilled in there. That doctor was going to hear everything and analyze everything and point out all the ways he was a complete failure as a fiancé, and maybe even as a father. He’d be the bad guy. He wasn’t used to that. But if Maria needed him . . . “Sure,” he decided. “When?”

“Um . . . could you come tomorrow? He said around 10:30-ish. Well, actually, he just said 10:30. I said –ish.”

He smiled, hearing just a snippet of his old Maria. “Yeah. I’ll be there.”

“Okay.” The conversation stalled, and he wasn’t sure if she wanted to say more, or if even he wanted to say more. He didn’t want to hang up the phone. That much he was sure of. But apparently she had other ideas, because she said, “See you then,” and that was that. She hung up.

“See ya,” he said to no one.

He kept holding onto his phone and looked at the bedside clock again. 10:15 p.m. Only twelve hours and fifteen minutes until 10:30-ish tomorrow. And now he wouldn’t sleep for one of them.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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Part 146

Postby April » Sun Dec 23, 2012 4:53 pm

Ellie:
This was a monumental update!

Max coming to Michael for advice on how to be a better dad to Garret; Maria's break-through; Alex seeing his father and finding out that he still is pretty much an alcoholic. But the eye opener - Maria calling Michael about a group therapy session. Just ... I'm floored.


I didn't really think about it until you mentioned all of it, but I guess there was a lot of big stuff happening in that part. We've been building up to many of these confrontations for awhile, so . . . it continues.

Novy:
I never really thought about the history Maria has had with watching Michael with Isabel. I get now the level that played in what happened and how she reacted. A man can tell you they love you and show you in different ways but until you can see yourself in a light that is worthily of that it might not mean anything. I think this will be a good opportunity for her to understand herself more and trust her own self worth.


Self worth. That's a good way to describe what Maria is trying to uncover right now. Throughout this whole story, I think, she's been dealing with a mountain of insecurities and doubts. Time for her to confront them.

Grace:
Just reading this chapter made me hate Michael, and Isabitch all over again.


:lol: Sorry. That's fair, though. Michael's screwed up to the point where he deserves a certain amount of anger, and it can pop up at any time.

CandyliciousLovah:
So, Isabel and Michael dated BEFORE M&M?


Long before. I can't remember if you were one of the ones reading this story before reading 521, but it's established way back towards the beginning of that one that Michael and Isabel were in a serious relationship long before he and Maria ever developed romantic feelings for each other.

Ginger: It's always nice to have an up-and-running computer. I haven't had too many problems with it lately. Fingers crossed it stays that way!

cjensen2:
it's hard to abandon someone when they are that messed up and you feel like you could help t hem, but at some point he needs to put Maria's feelings first (as well as admit to himself that Isabel does not have his best interest at heart and is destructive to his life) and not try to save Isabel or at least be way more open and honest with Maria about how he is doing this and why he is so motivated to help her.


Definitely. Luckily, this whole thing has been a major wake-up call to Michael. He just needs to realize that there is only so much you can do to help a person. Eventually, they have to help themselves. And now he's going to be directing all his energy towards helping Maria, because, at the end of the day, she's the one in his heart.

from even Maria's short memory it's clear that Isabel was cruel, petty and manipulative even when with Michael. She may have treated him well, but she still seems to have been pretty bitchy to everyone else so I don't see how that wouldn't have bothered him. And he just came off looking rather pathetic and easily manipulated by her, so frankly knowing that he actually wanted to marry Isabel makes me lose respect for him.


I think he was kind of pathetic and easily manipulated by her. Michael's always been a good guy, but he hasn't made the smartest decisions when it comes to his love life.

I personally think that a lot of his sympathy toward and willingness to put up with Isabel so much after all she has done stems from pride: both in not wanting to recognize how totally blind and stupid he was in his idealisation of Isabel when dating her as well as being at least somewhat flattered that a gorgeous woman (even one obviously a little crazy) adores him so much.


I think both these things are a huge part of it. I mean, you've got Major Fact #1: He did truly love her. She was at her best with him, even though she still wasn't a saint. She capitvated him and energized him in a way that no one had up until that point in his life. But, Major Fact #2: It was his first serious relationship, and he invested so much of himself in it that, yes, it would have been utterly painful to recognize the fact that something wasn't quite right about it, about HER. And Major Fact #3: Isabel tends to leave the men in her life breathless. She's gorgeous, intelligent, talented, and motivated. On the surface, what's not to like?

Was he a fool to stay with her so long? Probably. Has she caused him issues that are going to stay with him for a lifetime? Most certainly.


Thank you so much for the feedback! Such a motivator after all this time! :D








Part 146








“You nervous?”

“No.” Michael drummed his fingers on the counter, wishing someone would come into the gallery to distract him. “Why would you even say that?”

Kyle smirked. “Because you look nervous.”

“I’m not.”

Kyle gave him a knowing look.

“Alright, I’m freakin’ out, man,” he admitted without much resistance. Hell, if he couldn’t talk to Kyle about this, who could he talk to? “I haven’t seen her for almost two months. Last night was the first time I even talked to her since she left.”

“And you survived.”

“Barely. And I didn’t sleep a wink last night.” He rubbed his forehead, tired and suffering a slight headache. “Dude, what if I go in there and say the wrong thing?”

“You just gotta say the honest thing,” Kyle said, hopping up on the counter. “Don’t hold back.” He grabbed one of the hard candies out of the candy bowl and rolled it around in his hand for a minute before unwrapping it and popping it into his mouth.

“Didn’t you and Tess go to counseling once?” Michael asked.

“Yeah. Epic failure,” he admitted. “But I don’t think either of us was really trying. Maria’s . . . well, she’s gotta be trying if she wants you there.”

“Her doctor wants me there,” Michael pointed out. “I don’t know if she does.”

“No, you can’t think like that.” Kyle made a disgusted face and spit the candy into the trash. “Be positive.”

“Yeah, positively terrified.” He sighed heavily, already imaging what it would be like. He was going to be raked through the coals, and he deserved it.

“So how’d she sound when you talked to her?” Kyle asked.

He shrugged. “Better, I guess. I mean, anything’s better than how she was before.”

“See? That’s good. There’s nothin’ to freak out about.”

“I guess.” For a minute, he was calm, but then he glanced at the clock, and he was freaking out again. “Oh, shit, I gotta go.” It was already 9:55. He grabbed his jacket and put it on.

“Already?” Kyle said. “Is it that far away?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been there before, and I don’t trust Tess’s directions.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t, either.”

He took his keys out of his pocket and headed for the door. Once there, though, he stopped and turned back around. “I think the reason I’m so nervous,” he pondered, “is ‘cause I know, when I walk in there, I’m automatically the bad guy.”

Kyle shook his head. “I don’t think you’re the bad guy; you’re just the messed up guy. So . . .” He shrugged. “That probably means you need help just like Maria does.”

His stomach tightened up even more, because he just wasn’t sure if anything could help him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria stood before her mirror, carefully checking over what she was wearing. She wasn’t trying to look too fancy, which was why she’d opted for a simple light pink sweater and jeans. Her hair was down, but not curled or done in any particular way. She didn’t want to seem like she was trying too hard.

She tugged down on the shirt, then debated whether or not to roll the sleeves up. She decided to leave them as they were, then leaned in closer to wipe away a smear of mascara right beneath her eye. This was the first time she’d worn any makeup whatsoever in a long time.

Stop it, she finally told herself, content with the reflection staring back at her. It wasn’t like she and Michael were going on a date or doing anything romantic at all that day. It was strictly business.

But she still wouldn’t mind if he thought she looked nice.

A knock on her door startled her, because she knew it was him. She took a deep breath, trying to remain calm, and walked over to open it. She hesitated momentarily, though, her hand hovering centimeters away from the doorknob, and her heart started beating rapidly. God, she was so nervous. But that was natural, wasn’t it? And wouldn’t he probably be nervous, too?

He knocked again, and this time, she opened the door. Neither of them said anything when they saw each other. He stared at her, and she stared at him, and for a few seconds, she forgot to breathe. He was really there.

She remembered standing like this just a few years ago, back at his old apartment, only the situations had been reversed that time, and she had been the one waiting to get let in.

This was different.

“Hi,” she finally managed to say.

“Hi,” he returned, his eyes locked on hers. He let them roam over her outfit once before adding, “You look nice.”

Was it totally corny that she was really glad to hear him say that? “Thanks.” She stepped aside and held the door open wider. “Come in.”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and stepped inside unsurely. He looked completely petrified, but he made his best attempt at small-talk anyway. “So this is your room, huh?” He looked around, nodding his head as though he approved. “It’s nice. Spacious.”

“Yeah, it’s not bad,” she agreed, standing behind him so she could look over every inch of him freely and without embarrassment. “It’s one of the bigger ones.” He looked really good, too. Tired, but . . . sort of like the same old Michael. Familiar.

He walked around, taking a closer look at things, and poked his head in the bathroom. “And you have your own bathroom,” he remarked. “That’s good. So it’s not like a dorm.”

“No. Much better than that.” Although she would’ve given anything to be back in a dorm room with Tess for one more day. Back in college. Back when life had just been about having fun. “Thanks for coming,” she said.

“No problem.” He kept looking around the room, almost as if he were suddenly trying to look everywhere but at her. His eyes settled on the photo of Miley she had on her nightstand, and he smiled fondly. “Hmm.”

She wrapped her arms around her chest, hoping he didn’t wonder why there were no pictures of him around. Hopefully . . . he had to understand.

“I missed you,” he said suddenly, looking at the floor.

She didn’t want to say it out loud, but being in that room with him, talking to him . . . she knew right then and there that, despite everything, she’d actually missed him, too. “We should probably go,” she said, hoping both their nerves would calm down once they weren’t alone in a room together. “I don’t wanna keep Dr. Carlson waiting.” There. That was a nice, legitimate excuse.

“Alright,” he said, gesturing to the door. “Lead the way.”

They walked slowly, past the private dining room some residents sometimes reserved to have birthday celebrations, past the lounge, and past the cafeteria. They didn’t say much, but Michael sometimes asked things like, “Is that where you eat dinner?” as though he were on some guided tour.

“Yeah,” she replied.

“How’s the food?”

“Kinda sucks.” If that was the worst thing she had to complain about there, though, then it wasn’t so bad. She accidentally started walking too close, and her arm brushed his, so she took a subtle step away and kept talking. “There’s a gym, too, but I’ve only gone to it a few times.”

He nodded, slowing the pace even more as they turned the corner to another resident hallway. “Do you like it here?” he asked.

She shrugged. “It’s not bad. But . . . it’s not where I wanna be.”

He slowed to a near stop, looking down at her, and for a second, she thought he was going to ask her where she wanted to be. But before he could, Ivy came out of her room and approached them, yammering like usual. “Maria,” she said, “did you see today’s lunch menu? How many times can they give us goulash and expect us to be okay with it?” She finally noticed Michael, and she grinned a bit. “Oh, hello.”

“Hi,” he said.

“Um, Michael, this is Ivy. We eat together every day. Ivy, this is Michael,” Maria introduced. “He’s, um . . .” She trailed off, wondering what the hell she was supposed to call him.

Luckily, he jumped in. “Her daughter’s father,” he said extending his hand.

“Nice to meet you,” Ivy said, shaking it.

“Yeah, you, too.”

Inwardly, Maria breathed a sigh of relief. Crisis averted. Her daughter’s father. Yes, that’s what Michael was. That was one thing he would always be, no matter what. They could figure out the rest some other time. “We have to go,” she said, “but I’ll see you at lunch. Goulash.”

“Sarcastic yay.” Ivy rolled her eyes, then laughed a little and waved as she pranced past Michael. “See ya.”

“Bye,” he said. “Well, she seems nice.”

“She is.” Ivy actually kind of reminded her of her friend Lucinda from college. But she hadn’t spoken to Lucinda in a long time. Lucinda, who was student teaching at that very moment, because things in her life hadn’t gone to hell. Lucky Lucinda.

When they rounded the corner to Dr. Carlson’s office, Maria found herself feeling more anxious than she had in a long time. In fact, she hadn’t felt this anxious since her very first session. She knew they needed to do this, talk things through together, but it was scary. She didn’t know what he was going to say, and she had no idea how he would feel about what she was saying.

“Is he ready for us?” she asked her doctor’s receptionist.

“Go right in.”

Maria did her best to take a deep breath without actually looking like she was taking a deep breath and approached the closed door. She took one last glance back at Michael, and he looked completely terrified. Which made sense. Guys like Michael didn’t go to therapy. Guys like Michael usually had everything in their lives together. This was new for him, and probably something he’d never thought he’d do.

“Don’t be nervous,” she told him. “He’s really nice.”

He shook his head and immediately denied it. “I’m not nervous.”

She took some pride in the fact that, even though they’d grown so far apart over the past few months, she could still read him. “Yes, you are.” She pushed open the door and greeted her doctor. “Hi, Dr. Carlson.”

He spun around in his chair, a supportive smile on his face. “Good morning, Maria. Ah, and this must be Michael.” He stood up and stuck out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to . . .” Michael quickly wiped his hand on his jeans before shaking. “. . . meet you.”

Maria smiled a little. Oh, well. At least if he was nervous, that meant he was taking this seriously. She sat down, and Michael followed suit, taking the seat beside her.

“This seems like a really nice place here,” he remarked.

“Well, thank you,” Dr. Carlson said, sitting down across from them. He took out Maria’s file folder and a recorder, setting it off to the side. But Maria watched Michael’s eyes grow bigger when he noticed it. He didn’t say anything, but his nervousness probably multiplied tenfold.

“Alright, Michael,” Dr. Carlson said, “I’d like to explain to you the purposes of this session today. We’re not at the point where Maria feels comfortable leaving yet, but that’s certainly something you’ll need to start thinking about soon.”

Michael nodded, taking it all in.

“We’re not sitting down here today to discuss plans for the future, though; we’re here to come to grips with the past. Maria’s been doing that for several weeks now, and I thought it was time to bring you in, make you part of the process. So thank you for coming.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Michael said, already shifting around uncomfortably in his seat. “So what do I . . . what do I do? Do I just sit and listen?”

“Sometimes,” Dr. Carlson replied. “But I’m also very interested in what you have to say, and I’m sure Maria is, too.”

He cast a glance at her, and she nodded.

“The most important thing is for you to be completely honest,” Dr. Carlson said. “The only way to deal with the issues is to get them out in the open.”

“Okay,” Michael said, taking off his jacket as beads of nervous sweat began to glisten on his forehead. “I can do that.”

Dr. Carlson smiled at him, then reached over and turned the recorder on.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Kyle watched in amazement as Tess plucked the last stray piece of cheese off her enchilada wrapper and popped it into her mouth. It was the second of not one, not two, but three chicken enchiladas she’d brought to the gallery for lunch that day. “I can’t believe you ate all that.”

“Really? ‘Cause I could eat a whole lot more.”

He looked down the half-eaten quesadilla in front of him, and his stomach bulged with fullness. “I’m humbled. I’m humbled and amazed. And sorta horny.” There was something about a girl who wasn’t ashamed to just pig out that was extremely sexy. Add in the fact that she was eating so much because she was pregnant, and he was totally turned on.

“What, you wanna feed me?” she asked, tossing her wrappers in the trashcan.

“Yeah, as a matter of fact.” He pushed his food aside and reached over the counter for her. “Come here.” He hoisted her up onto the counter and hopped up there himself so he could kiss her.

“Kyle, I have to get back to work,” she mumbled against his lips.

“Oh, come on, you know it won’t take long.”

“Hmm, true.”

He pulled away a bit and frowned. “Hey, that’s where you’re supposed to disagree with me.”

“Oh, well, in that case, you are a marathon man in every kind of sex imaginable.”

“Babe, you stroke my ego.”

“Hmm, well, speaking of stroking . . .” She kissed him again, trailing her hand down in between him to play with his zipper. She didn’t quite have it all the way down, though, when the door chimed and Marty DeLuca came in. “Or not.” She slid off the counter and greeted him cheerily. “Hey, Marty, long time no see.”

“Hey, bitches,” he said halfheartedly. “What’s up?”

“Just me.” Kyle hopped down behind the counter, zipping and readjusting his jeans. Better.

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever,” Tess said, giving him a quick hug. “How have you been?”

Marty shrugged.

“That’s it? Just . . .” She imitated his shrug.

“Well, Jimmy left me because things have been so nuts since New Year’s and he couldn’t handle it,” he lamented. “I’m behind on the payments for my club, so I’ll probably have to close down. And I haven’t seen my little sister in weeks. So yeah, I’ve been better.”

Kyle felt a stab of guilt that he wasn’t already aware of most of that. Sure, Marty was never one to publicize his issues or make a huge deal out of them, but he and Tess should’ve made an effort to know.

“Have you talked to her?” Tess asked.

“The briefest of conversations here and there. You?”

She nodded. “Same. Michael went to see her today, though.”

Marty’s mouth dropped open. “Are you serious?” he huffed. “Unbelievable. Un-freaking-believable. And you guys are just okay with this?”

“Well, it’s not really up to us,” Tess pointed out. “Maria was the one to invite him up there.”

“That’s because . . .” Marty scrambled to come up with an explanation. “She’s over-dependent on him and not thinking clearly.”

“Actually, her doctor suggested it,” Kyle chimed in. He couldn’t say he was surprised by Marty’s reaction, but . . . part of him was surprised. Marty and his mom had been very mad at Michael following Maria’s overdose, as they rightfully should have been. But he’d kind of expected that, like Tess, they’d cool off given a few weeks. “Look, Marty, you gotta . . .”

“What?” he barked. “Just forgive him? Forgive him for betraying her? I don’t think so. And I can’t believe you two have, either.”

“The guy’s my best friend,” Kyle pointed out. “What do you expect?”

“Well, to be honest, Kyle, I don’t expect a whole lot from you,” Marty snapped, turning his accusatory gaze to Tess then. “But you . . . I can’t believe you just forgot what he did so quickly.”

“I didn’t forget,” Tess said quietly.

“Sure seems like you have. And Maria’s like a sister to you. You of all people should understand how my mom and I feel about him now, and you should feel the same way.”

Kyle didn’t like this, didn’t like hearing Marty tell Tess how she should and shouldn’t feel. This whole thing had been hard enough and stressful enough on her already, and she didn’t need someone making her feel guilty now. “Marty, why don’t you just leave?” he suggested.

“Are you . . .” Marty gave him a shocked look. “Are you kicking me out? I just popped in to say hey.”

“And you’re just now saying it.” Kyle usually wasn’t one to put his foot down like this, but this was his gallery, his and Michael’s gallery. And he didn’t want to hear this. “Look, Tess and I decided we’re gonna support both of them, try not to take sides. And if you can’t do that, you need to go.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Marty grumbled.

“Look, I’m not gonna stand here and listen to you trash my best friend, or let you make her feel bad for not chiming in.” He was practically yelling, and that startled even him. “Just go.”

Marty stared at him as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But then he did what Kyle asked and left, without another word. Silence hung in the air long after he was gone.

There was concern in Tess’s eyes, and Kyle understood why. Every time one division in their family started to heal, a new one started to form. Clearly they still had a lot of work ahead of them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The first twenty or so minutes of the therapy session were really simple. Dr. Carlson asked Michael a lot of questions about what his life had been like growing up, his parents, things like that. And those kinds of questions were easy to answer. Because his parents were good parents, and despite the mistakes he’d made as of late, they really had raised him right. He didn’t have any deeply-rooted emotional scars stemming from what he’d seen from them over the years. He wasn’t messed up because of his childhood. It was all very . . . simple. And he liked that.

“So all in all, you’d say you come from a good family?” Dr. Carlson summarized.

“Pretty good family. Dinner at the kitchen table every night, board games on Tuesdays. Nothin’ to complain about.” It would’ve been nice to sit at that kitchen table for one more evening, hop in a time machine and go back to a night playing one of those board games. Just him and his mom and his dad. Nothing else to worry about. “My parents are great. I know they played a big part in making me the man I am today.” He thought about what his father had told him, about how he’d cheated on his mom, and he added, “Especially my dad.” There was no need to give out that tidbit of information, though. He’d tell Maria at some point, probably, as long as his parents didn’t mind her knowing. But if he mentioned it now, it might seem like he was using that to make his own infidelities seem not so bad. And it was bad. It was so bad.

“And who is the man you are today?” Dr. Carlson inquired intently. “If you had to sum him up.”

And just like that, Michael sensed the session taking a turn for the less simple. “He’s . . .” How the hell was he even supposed to answer that question? People spent their entire lives trying to figure out who they were. He was only twenty-five, and he was . . . going through stuff. He glanced at Maria and asked, “You wanna help me out here?”

“He asked you.”

He supposed she got asked these kind of questions all the time, so it was probably a relief for her to just be able to listen for once. “I don’t . . .” As much as he wanted to formulate some kind of answer, saying too much would be saying a lie. “I guess I don’t really know,” he admitted. It wasn’t much of a response, but at least it was honest. “I used to. I used to be good.”

Dr. Carlson frowned. “And you’re not anymore?”

He looked at Maria quickly, and even though she was sitting right there, eyes open, looking more responsive than she had in months, he couldn’t forget the sight of her sprawled out on their bed, completely unresponsive after her overdose. “I don’t think so,” he confessed. A good man never would have caused that.

“You’re a good father,” she said quietly, and much to his surprise.

Well . . . there was that. He wasn’t perfect, but then again, what father was? He loved his kids more than anything, and he’d do anything for them. Or . . . her. One. “I guess,” he admitted. “To Miley.”

Maria looked down at her lap, but she mumbled something that meant everything. “You tried to save Macy,” she acknowledged. “You didn’t kill her.”

Considering she’d said the opposite during one of the last conversations—or rather arguments—they’d had, he felt a wave of relief. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d known that she hadn’t really meant it. But still . . . it was good to hear her say it. “My daughter’s one of the most important things in the world to me,” he told Dr. Carlson. “She’s incredible.”

“And what else is important?” the doctor asked, obviously trying to keep him talking. “What else matters?”

“Maria.” He didn’t want to overwhelm her by saying that, but . . . whatever. It was true. In his mind, he was thinking, She’s incredible, too. But that part, he kept to himself. He’d tell her again someday, when there wasn’t a doctor in the room, when things weren’t so awkward and saying it just felt natural.

“Maria, do you believe him?”

She looked at him for a few seconds, almost as if she were really questioning it, but then decided, “I guess. I mean, why else would he be here?”

He was a little disappointed she didn’t sound more sure of it, but it was better than nothing.

“What else is important?” Dr. Carlson kept on.

“Well, there’s my parents and Tess and Kyle. And the godson we’re gonna have in a few months.” There, the rest of the family. Back to the safe, simpler topics he liked.

But Maria pushed him back into the complicated, unsafe zone when she asked, “What about Isabel?”

That was the first time that name had even been brought up since he’d sat down, and he wasn’t prepared for it. “No,” he said quickly.

“Just like that, just no?” She narrowed her eyes skeptically. “Now I don’t believe you.”

He sighed heavily, hating that he’d given her so much reason to doubt him. “I’m not in love with her,” he reiterated. “You don’t have to believe me, but I’m not.”

“But you were, at one time.” She sounded calm, but she didn’t look calm. Her eyes were glistening with tears. “You were, like, deeply, madly in love. I remember.”

He shook his head, though he couldn’t deny it. “That was a long time ago.”

“No, not really.”

“Maria,” Dr. Carlson jumped in, “why don’t we let Michael talk more about this?”

Why do I have to? he wondered to himself, even though he knew he couldn’t avoid it. He’d known coming there today that he wouldn’t just spend the time talking about his family. He’d known these things were going to come up.

“What was your relationship with Isabel like back when the two of you were dating?” Dr. Carlson asked.

“Back then . . .” He wasn’t going to lie and say it’d been horrible, because it hadn’t been. “It was everything to me back then. I thought I was gonna spend forever with her.” He glanced at Maria out of the corner of his eye, just to gauge her reaction. She was sitting stiff as a board, but she appeared to be holding it together. Still, he made sure to add on, “But looking back and knowing what I know about her now, I’m glad I didn’t.” Maybe she’d made him happy once, but she would have made him miserable in the long run.

“Why did it end?” Dr. Carlson asked.

“Because she cheated on me.” He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering that devastation, and he hated to think that he’d brought that same devastation onto Maria. Only it was different, because he and Maria . . . they were just different, at a different level. “Trust me,” he said, “the irony’s not lost.”

“And what kind of relationship have you two had since then?”

As uncomfortable as it was to talk about the past, talking about the present . . . way worse. He shifted uncomfortably. “We didn’t . . . I wouldn’t say we had a relationship,” he stammered.

“Yes, you did,” Maria muttered.

He groaned inwardly, frustrated because of the fact that it was true. “She left,” he reminisced, “but when she came back, she was pregnant, and she led me to believe I was the dad. So I gave up everything to be there for her.”

“Meaning?” the doctor probed.

He swallowed hard. “I gave up Maria.” He saw her wince, and he knew it hurt to travel down this particular memory lane.

“And I honestly don’t blame you for that,” she said, “and I understand why you did what you did. That’s the honorable thing, and that’s just . . . that’s just you. But you know I’ve always wondered.”

“Wondered what?”

She turned to face him even more, the tears still glistening, but not yet spilling over. “Wondered if you’re only with me because I had your baby and she didn’t. Maybe your entire relationship with me has just been the honorable thing.”

It actually hurt him to know she felt that way. “No, I ended up with you because . . . because I was meant to.”

“And you really think Miley had nothing to do with it?” One tear slipped over.

He wanted to just keep saying no, but really . . . it was hard to say. He was with Maria because he loved her, but having a kid had probably strengthened the bond. “Maria, I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t know anything anymore.”

Dr. Carlson cleared his throat and interjected again. “So Isabel misled you, numerous times by the sound of it.”

“Yeah.”

“Then let’s cut to the chase: How’d you end up back in bed with her?”

The suddenness of the question probably would’ve knocked him off his feet if he’d been standing. It was a fair question, though, one he’d been asking himself ever since it happened. “It’s complicated,” he replied vaguely.

“So simplify it. Were you two friends?”

“Not exactly. But . . . sometimes I could talk to her, and she would just listen.” He liked to think it had been completely innocent, at least on his end. But maybe it hadn’t been.

“Talk about what?” Maria asked, her voice thick with sadness now.

“About Macy.”

Her eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“I needed someone to . . .” He trailed off, not wanting to make her feel worse than she already did. “And you sometimes.”

“You talked to her about me?” Her voice was barely above a whisper now, and she was starting to look evermore emotional.

“Maria, what are you feeling right now?” Dr. Carlson asked.

She shook her head, clearly astonished by everything she was hearing. “I feel like you were cheating on me for months.”

“No.” He’d never meant to give her that idea.

“I feel like you were having an affair.”

“Nothing was happening.”

“Yeah, nothing physical.”

“Michael,” Dr. Carlson said, “is it fair to say you sought out some kind of emotional comfort from Isabel?”

He slumped forward, holding his head in his hands, feeling like every square inch of him was being dragged behind a truck right now. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I couldn’t get it anywhere else.” He didn’t mean to sound harsh, but . . . Maria wasn’t an idiot. Maria had to know she hadn’t been there for him. “I know it sounds selfish, but . . . I just needed help after the accident, and she helped me.”

“How?” the doctor urged.

It was hard to explain. It probably wouldn’t even make sense to anyone but him. “It wasn’t . . . it wasn’t love,” he quickly assured Maria. “It had nothing to do with that.”

“But you knew she loved you,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, but I just didn’t care. I knew I’d never be in love with her again for the rest of time, so I never thought those conversations would lead to anything. I never thought it’d get out of control the way it did. I just . . .” Even now, even just thinking back to it, he felt the way he had back then, completely powerless and completely desperate for things to be easy. “I was trying so hard to take care of everyone else, and it wasn’t working. But Isabel wanted to take care of me. So I let her. And it was wrong. And I’m sorry.” It was way too small of an apology for something so huge, but . . . what else was there to give?

Maria squeezed her eyes shut for a minute, obviously trying to keep the waterworks in. “But why her?” she asked, her voice cracking with the pain she was feeling. “Why not go to Tess or Kyle? You couldn’t go to me; I get that. But why not Tess or Kyle? They would’ve listened.”

He could’ve rationalized it, could’ve said that, between the rape and the baby, they’d been dealing with enough of their own problems, but in reality, it had nothing to do with that. “I was in a dark place, and Isabel’s the darkest person I know,” he said, resisting the urge to hold her hand. “She made me feel like she understood. She could just say something and make me feel like everything was gonna be alright, like everything would work out. Somehow.”

Right as he said that, the tears started to pour out of her gorgeous green eyes. Her mouth dropped open, but she couldn’t even look at him.

“Maria?”

She kept crying, finally turning to face him, and her voice was so small and soft when she said, “That’s the way you make me feel.”

Oh, fuck. He hadn’t meant for it to sound like that. But . . . it was just honest. He was just trying to be honest. Everyone had told him to be honest, and this was it. Honesty.

She held one hand over her mouth, clearly on the verge of breaking down, stood up, and fled the room. Instinct screamed at him to go after her, but common sense told him to let her be alone. She’d probably had enough of him for one day. Who could blame her?

He decided right then and there that he didn’t blame her for anything. Because even though she’d pushed him away, he hadn’t held on as tightly as he could have. He’d let Isabel pull him.

“Well,” Dr. Carlson said, “I think we’re done for today.” He turned the recorder off.








TBC . . .

-April



ETA: Happy Holidays! :mrgreen:
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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April
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Part 147

Postby April » Sun Jan 06, 2013 2:22 pm

Wow, so I just noticed that the Alien Abyss fics got trimmed down considerably. Oh, the few, the proud . . . the fics of the Alien Abyss. :lol:

I was looking back and noticed that, in my author's note for the very first chapter of this fic, I said that I'm writing it in 2009/2010. And now it's already 2013! Wowza. I can't believe I've been writing this for that long. Thanks so much for those that have kept reading. It's been no small committment. It will be finished in 2013. In fact, I may soon be at the point where I can start doing weekly updates again.


Novy:
Maybe it's because he isn't use to making big life mistakes so when he does its huge and a big deal.


Yeah, I think that's a huge part of what Michael is dealing with right now. He's used to being the one people rely on when the problems arise, not the one who causes the problems to arise in the first place. It's . . . sort of unsettling for him, and for those around him. But like you said, nobody's perfect! And nobody should feel the pressure to be. I think most everyone could agree on that much.

Ellie:
Neither one of them thought to lean on the other, and now they're where they are at.


Yeah, if they had handled the situation differently . . . well, everything could have been different. But it's all about moving forward now, since they can't change the past.

Grace:
I agree that Michael and Maria didn't handle that death well, but why is Michael getting a leave, and Maria was selfish!


I don't really think Michael's just off the hook for his actions. He hurt a lot of people with what he did, most of all Maria, but at the end of the day, he is still a good man; he's just a good man who made a horrible mistake. So most of the people in his life are trying to be supportive or learning to trust him again. But like you mentioned, for Marty and Amy, including him in their lives again is sort of a slap in the face to Maria. So it's a litle harder for them to move on from it, even though Maria herself is now trying to.

Ginger:
Women sometime forget that men have feelings too...I think that's why they call men mama's boys sometime. Mama remembers that her little boy hurt just as badly as her little girl did when he fell and bruised his knees. Maybe it wasn't manly to cry but it hurt just as badly and I hope that Maria knows Michael's heart is just as broken as hers is with the loss of their baby girl and their unborn.


Looking back on this story, I think it's clear that, even though Michael was just as devastated as Maria in the wake of that accident, he felt that he wasn't allowed to show it as much. Except when he was around Isabel. There was one person who was happy to support him and take care of him however she could when he was busy trying to take care of everyone else. Was it stupid for him to let her weasel her way back in? Surely. Was it maybe somewhat understandable? That's up for debate.

cjensen2:
Sorry my responses are so long, but since you have created such a rich, complex story and characters, I feel there is so much I want to say. So I hope you like to read long feedback!


What author doesn't like to read long feedback? That's the best! :D Thank you! I appreciate the time you've taken to do that.

I do kind of understand because it's easy to fall back into certain habits with people even after long periods of time or when you don't mean or want to, but he is going to have to acknowledge to himself that when it comes to Isabel, he is quick to make exceptions and lets her get him to do things that he wouldn't do otherwise and are harmful to himself as well as his family.


In a way, his entire relationship with Isabel has been one gigantic exception. Because it's not like Michael to let someone like that into his life. But he did it not once, but twice. It's been an issue for him, obviously, something that he NEEDS to get past.

And I actually do sympathize with Isabel a bit like Maria said because Michael totally used her. He can lie to himself all he wants, but it was obvious for a long time that what he was doing was wrong, as is evidenced by the fact that he tried to hide it from everyone. And he can't even blame Isabel for taking advantage of him because he knew what she was like and what her endgame was - to destroy his relationship with Maria and win him back. And he has no one to blame but himself for letting her back into his life.


I agree with you. It's odd, because even though Isabel is the undisputed "villain" of the story . . . she's really not the one at fault. Like you said, everyone, including Michael, knew what her deal was, knew she wanted him back at all costs. It was no secret. So when that became available to her . . . of course she was going to go for it. The blame is all on him for doing the same.


Thank you once again for all the feedback!


Just going to drop this off while I'm here: Play with Fire
I made it over Christmas break because I was spending more time playing The Sims than I was writing. :lol: But after I made this, I got back in the mood and now I'm a writing machine again! The song is called "Play with Fire" by The Birthday Massacre.


Now, onward with the first part of 2013!








Part 147








The combined smell of whiskey and cigarette smoke greeted Max when he stepped foot in Rodeo’s. The bar looked as un-classy as ever, which was exactly how he knew he’d find Alex’s dad there. And indeed, that’s where he was. He was sitting at the counter by himself, ordering another drink even though he wasn’t done with the one in front of him. Max sauntered towards him.

“Had a feeling I’d find you here,” he said, contemplating whether or not to take a seat. But he wasn’t staying, so he stayed standing. Plus, he kind of liked looking down on the older man. “Like father like son, huh? Just do me a favor and call a cab. Alex was driving home from this bar the night he . . .” He trailed off. No need to rehash. He just didn’t want history repeating itself.

Chuck swirled the liquid in his glass around, staring down to the bottom of it. “I visited him today,” he revealed somberly.

“And now you’re here.” The Whitman drowning of the sorrows was not a new routine to him. He’d witnessed it countless times.

“Cut me some slack,” Chuck said. “It’s not an easy thing for a father to see his son in prison.”

Max thought of Garret, and he imagined what he would feel if . . . but that would never happen. He’d never let it happen. “You know I can’t let you be a part of Garret’s life, right?” he said, cutting to the chase, the whole reason why he’d come to find this guy in the first place. “And this right here is one of the reasons why. You understand that.”

Chuck thought about it for a moment, then downed the rest of his drink as a new bartender clumsily slid a new glass right in front of him. “I’m not a bad person, and he’s my family,” he said. “So no, I don’t understand.”

“Don’t? Or don’t want to?”

Chuck glared at him.

Max was growing impatient. He wanted this done. “Look, the bottom line is, it’s not gonna happen,” he said, leaning in, lowering his voice, doing his best to be intimidating. “Garret’s my responsibility now, and if you try to take him away from me, I’ll take you down.” It wasn’t hard to say, because he meant every word of it.

Chuck smirked. “Nice bravado.”

“I’ve dealt with much tougher, stronger, more powerful people than you, one of them being my own father. You don’t scare me.”

Chuck seemed uncomfortable. He was gripping his glass tighter, and his body language showed tenseness. Max knew what he was doing was working. “You’re a businessman, aren’t you Max?” Chuck said. “Or at least you used to be.”

Max rolled his eyes. Had to get that damn jab in there.

“Well, I used to be one, too,” Chuck acknowledged, “so maybe we could strike a deal: I get him for Christmas and for a few weeks during the summer. You get him for the rest of the year.”

“No.” Max wasn’t about to negotiate. “You get to leave town and Fed-ex his Christmas presents every year. If you’re lucky, Liz and I let you stay with us for a weekend every summer just to get you off our backs.” And that was as far as he was willing to compromise. He may not have ended up being the best businessman of all time, but he knew that if he gave in too much, he’d end up giving up too much. “Deal?”

Chuck sighed disappointedly, and even though he clearly wasn’t happy about it, he reluctantly agreed, “Sure.” He held out his hand to shake on it, but Max had no interest in that. He pretended that he would shake, then faked Chuck Whitman out at the last minute and grabbed his glass from him instead. He walked out of the bar and threw the glass aside, wishing he’d been there to do the same thing for Alex on New Year’s. Everything would have been different then.

“Well?”

He smiled when he heard Liz’s voice. He looked over at her, where she was casually standing beside the building, arms folded over her chest, cell phone in hand.

“A weekend,” he said.

She nodded. “I can handle that.”

He shuffled towards her, asking, “Did you get the pictures?”

“Yeah.” She held up her phone and showed him various shots of Chuck Whitman drinking, completely unaware that he was being photographed, distracted by his conversation with Max. “So now if he decides to get greedy with his Garret-time, we can show these to a judge. Not exactly wise behavior for a recovering alcoholic.”

It was a small sense of relief, knowing that he’d brokered a deal and that they had some ammo in their arsenal just in case they needed to use it. He grinned at his wife and said, “You’re very sexy right now.”

She blushed and rose up on her toes to kiss him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael trudged back into the gallery shortly after lunchtime, completely spent. The emotional drain must have been evident on his face, but Kyle, all too optimistic for his own good, asked anyway, “How’d it go?”

“Well, I made her cry and run out of the room,” Michael replied, sitting down in the middle of the floor, “so on a scale of one to ten . . . it sucked.” He flopped down, flat on his back, hoping no customers walked in, because even if they did, he wasn’t moving.

“I’m sorry,” Kyle sympathized. “Were you just being honest, though?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, so, you can’t really have any regrets about it.”

Michael grunted, sort of wishing he had lied, wishing he’d said something like . . . like he’d only hooked up with Isabel because he was trying to punish himself, not because it made him feel better.

“Look, I know you can’t understand that right now,” Kyle said, sitting down beside him, “but trust me, I’m right.”

“You think so?”

“Oh, I know so. And I’m all-knowing these days. Didn’t you know that?”

“No.”

“Well, now you do.”

Michael managed to laugh a little, because deep down, he knew Kyle was right. The old adage that honesty was the best policy was right. He would’ve felt even worse if he’d lied, if he’d taken it easy during the session and not really delved into what he was feeling now and what he had been feeling that night.

His phone rang, and he groaned, thinking he’d hang up on whoever it was. But when he glanced at the screen, Maria’s name stared back at him. He shot up into a sitting position. “It’s her,” he said.

“Oh, I knew she was gonna call,” Kyle said. “All-knowing, see?”

He got to his feet and headed back into his office to take the call in private. “Hey,” he said, shutting the door.

“Hey.” She didn’t sound quite as sad as she had at the end of their session. In fact, she sounded . . . fine. Kind of normal.

“How’re you doing?” he asked.

“Hmm, I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Just the fact that she would even wonder . . . the Maria who had existed in the wake of the car accident hadn’t really wondered, or cared. “Yeah, today was kinda . . .”

“Intense,” she filled in.

“Yeah.” Even this, this simple phone call . . . intensity.

“I’m okay, though,” she assured him. “I know I got a little worked up, but . . . it’s all good.”

It was? He was a little surprised to hear that. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad,” he assured her.

“You didn’t,” she said. “You just made me feel . . . a lot. Let’s face it, Michael: Today’s conversation was long overdue. Probably the most honest, heartfelt talk we’ve had in months.”

Knowing she felt this way was . . . refreshing. It was clear to him that all this therapy was really helping her, and now that he knew that . . . it was starting to help him, too. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

“It’s a good thing, I think, being able to tell me everything.”

“A good thing,” he echoed. Yeah, it was.

“So do you wanna come back tomorrow?” she asked.

“Tomorrow? For another session?” As helpful as this may have been, he was completely wiped out from it. He wasn’t sure how much more he could handle.

“No. But maybe just for lunch,” she suggested. “I think you’d really enjoy finding out how awful the food here is.”

He laughed lightly. “Yeah, I think so, too.” He’d probably feel so nervous he wouldn’t be able to eat a whole lot, but . . . it’d be worth it to spend some more time with her. “I’ll be there.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow then,” she said. “Bye.”

“Bye.” Once again, he waited for her to end of the call. When she did, he felt re-energized, knowing now that he’d left that therapy session with the total wrong impression. It hadn’t gone horribly wrong. It’d actually gone pretty right.

When he opened the door, Kyle was walking away from it, not subtle at all. “Were you eavesdropping?” Michael asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Kyle answered unabashedly. “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you just scored yourself a second date at the therapy center. Alright, man.” He held up his hand for a congratulatory high-five.

Michael couldn’t help but grin and give him that high-five. He felt strangely encouraged for once. Maybe crying and running out of the room wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Maybe it was sort of . . . necessary.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When Max and Liz got home that evening, Garret was sitting outside on the porch with Tiffany, showing her his favorite stick. The boy literally had a favorite stick, which was sad. But she was doing a good job of pretending to be interested. She didn’t appear completely exhausted, either, even though she’d spent a good deal of the day babysitting him.

“Uncle Max!” Garret exclaimed before proceeding to say something so quickly that Max couldn’t make out a word of it.

“He said he wants to show you his drawing,” Tiffany translated. “He did a drawing today.”

“Great, Michael Guerin tendencies,” Max muttered. “Well, show me, buddy.”

“It’s inside.” He jumped to his feet and ran in the house.

“So how’d the babysitting go?” Liz asked.

“Good,” Tiffany replied. “You know, we just ran around with scissors, took candy from strangers, glued things together.” She laughed, but upon noticing the horrified looks on their face, she added, “Kidding. Man, you guys need to lighten up.”

Max smiled. The fact that Tiffany, once a product of a system of abusive foster families, was urging them not to take things so seriously . . . that was a good thing, and he took some pride in that, knowing he’d saved her from the worst situation of all.

“Thanks again for everything,” Liz said, stopping to give her a quick hug on her way in the house.

“No problem,” Tiffany said. “It’s good experience for me.”

Max sat down beside her when it was just the two of them, confident that Garret would get distracted showing Liz his drawing for awhile. “Are you sure you have to go?” he asked.

“Yeah. But maybe I can come visit again.”

“Of course.” He knew she’d probably get so involved in her new life that she’d eventually forget all about their unusual friendship. But that was fine, too.

“So, how do you like being a dad so far?” she asked.

“It’s stressful,” he admitted, “but good. How do you like being a daughter?”

“It’s awesome,” she answered without even hesitating. “You know, I’m really lucky to have my new parents, just like Garret’s lucky to have you and Liz.”

“Hmm, do you really think that, or are you just saying it?”

“I really think it.” She smiled. “Do you want my advice?”

“Constantly.” Hopefully hers would be a little less vague than Michael’s.

“Have some fun with the father thing,” she suggested. “Take some time to just take him to the zoo or the movies or the park. Buy him a gift just for the heck of it. Make a scrapbook for him to look at when he gets older.”

“Well, the scrapbook might be more of a Liz thing,” he said.

“Look, I know it’s stressful, but you gotta believe you can do it, ‘cause you can.”

He smiled. Definitely much better than Michael’s advice, although they were essentially giving him the same message. “Tiffany Faulkner,” he said, “so young but so wise.”

She shrugged and glanced down the road as a car came into view.

“Your parents?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

He sighed. “I’m gonna miss you.”

Just then, Garret came running back outside with his drawing in hand. He tripped one the step and practically fell into Max’s lap, giggling and shoving the drawing in his face. “Look!”

Tiffany laughed. “No, I don’t think you’ll have time to miss me.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lunch at Cresthaven the next day was actually pretty relaxing. Mostly because Michael didn’t have to talk a whole lot. Maria didn’t talk much, either, on account of the fact that her lunch buddy Ivy was doing enough talking for everyone. She had some colorful stories to tell about how she’d ended up there.

“So there I was,” she said in between bites, “wandering around aimlessly in nothin’ but my underwear. I stumble out onto the interstate, high as a kite, lay down on the center line, and then out of nowhere, Joe comes and lays down beside me. Drunk off his ass, of course.” She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. We start makin’ out, cars swervin’ all around us . . . we’ve been together ever since.” She smiled happily.

“Wow, Ivy,” Michael said, still trying to picture it all in his head, “that’s a charming tale.”

“She’s got a lot of those,” Maria piped up.

“Oh, yeah, I haven’t even told you about the alligator wrestling.” She grinned. “Well, it started off as alligator wrestling, but then it turned into sex.”

“Interesting.” Michael took a big long drink of his water to avoid having to say anything more.

“Well, everyone’s got their own love story,” she said. “Mine just happens to be insane.”

Michael glanced at Maria. They certainly had their own love story, and even though it wasn’t as insane as Ivy’s, it was pretty intense and dramatic.

“Actually,” Ivy went on, “Joe’s the reason why I’m here. He’s been clean and sober for seven months. Now it’s my turn.”

“I can already tell you’ve made a lot of progress,” Maria told her.

“Thanks. I don’t wanna get my hopes up, but I think it’s gonna work this time. Now that I got Joe, it’s like I got all this motivation, you know? Sometimes all you need is that one special person, and you can overcome anything.”

Michael’s eyes met Maria briefly, and then she looked down at her plate. “Yeah,” he said, wondering if he was still that special person for her. “I know what you mean.”

“You done?” she asked him.

“Yeah, I think so. That was . . . pretty crappy.” She really hadn’t been kidding about the food there. Ivy must have been either boycotting the food or just too busy to eat any of it, because her plate was still nearly full with her mashed potatoes and chicken fried steak. Or at least Michael thought it was supposed to be chicken fried steak. Maybe it was hamburger. Kind of hard to tell.

“This is actually one of the better meals,” Maria said, standing up.

“Oh, that’s a scary thought.” He pushed his seat back and made sure to add, “The conversation was good, though. Thank you for that, Ivy.”

“Hey, no prob,” she said, finally picking up her fork to take a bite. “Good to see you again.”

“You, too.”

“See you at dinner,” Maria said, leading him out of the cafeteria. “So, um, you wanna go sit outside?”

Before he could answer, thunder rumbled through the air.

“Or not.”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, that kinda answers that question.” He tried to remember what other places were there. There was that gym. Maybe she’d want to go there and . . . work out? That seemed weird.

“We can just go back to my room then,” she said. “To talk.”

He wanted to just act cool about it, but the thought of being in a bedroom with Maria, even in a completely non-sexual capacity . . . it put every square inch of him on edge a little bit. “Alright.” If that was what she wanted.

They got back to her room, and even though things were suddenly not relaxing at all, he knew it was for the best. He hadn’t gone there today to listen to Ivy talk, as entertaining as it was. He’d gone there so he could talk to Maria, and this was the space for it.

“So is it kinda weird being here?” she asked.

“Kinda,” he admitted, not sure where to sit. He was about to sit down on the bed, but he thought that she might want to sit there, so he sat in the chair instead. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, though.”

“Really?” She sounded skeptical. “Because there are a million places I’d rather be.”

He nodded, hoping that meant she wanted to be home. “Seems like this has been good for you, though.”

“Yeah, it has,” she agreed.

He sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Even though he didn’t want to be the first one to turn the small-talk into serious talk, he knew it was inevitably headed in that direction, so he figured he’d might as well start in. “Just so you know, Isabel’s gone. She left town,” he informed her, wishing there had been at least a little bit of a segue there. “So if you—when you come back, she’s not gonna be around. Not that she would’ve been around anyway.”

Even though Maria had stiffened at the mere mention of Isabel’s name, she seemed to relax a little bit and stay calm. “I bet Miley misses Garret,” she said.

“Actually, he’s staying with Max and Liz, so . . .”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. And I think they’re actually doing an okay job with him. Go figure.”

“Wow.” She sounded genuinely surprised. “I can’t believe she just . . .” She shook her head, and Michael knew she was having a hard time imagining a mother leaving her child behind. But then she frowned, whimpered a little bit, and started to look sad, and he had a feeling she was drawing some parallels with that situation and her own overdose.

“Has a lot changed?” she asked softly.

“Not really. Maybe.” He shrugged. “I honestly have no idea. Tess is still pregnant, Kyle’s still a spaz, but kind of cool in his own way. Max is still a jerk, and Marty’s still gay, so . . . some stuff hasn’t changed. But Miley’s got a cane’s now.”

“A cane?” She made a face.

“Yeah, but she’s probably gonna be walking without anything pretty soon. And, uh . . .” He cleared his throat nervously. “Macy’s room’s different.”

Maria frowned inquisitively.

“I, uh . . . I took down the crib.” He suddenly felt bad about not asking her permission, or asking if she wanted to help when she got home. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t . . .”

“It’s okay,” she cut him off. “I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Is that so hard to believe?”

Actually, it was.

“Don’t answer that.”

The last time Maria had made any effort to understand what he was feeling . . . well, it’d been awhile. “You know, you don’t have to be so nice to me,” he said, standing again. “If you wanna rip into me for what I did, just let me have it. I deserve it.”

“That’s not what I want.”

“Then what do you want?”

She stared at him for a minute. “Lots of things.”

He figured that was about all he was going to get in response, as unclear as it was, and he didn’t want to push her. So he hesitantly sat down beside her on the bed and decided to try to clear some things up for her instead. “I don’t want Isabel,” he reassured her. “I don’t love her. I know that doesn’t make it any better, and you should know I’ll never forgive myself for what I did, even if you do somehow manage to forgive me. But you also need to know . . .” He wanted to hold her hand. He wanted to do that so badly. But he couldn’t. “From the moment I first kissed you on New Year’s, it’s been all about you, Maria. I never settled for you; I got lucky enough to have you. Even through the bad times . . . I was lucky.”

She looked around the room and asked, “Even now? Even here?”

“Yeah.” There were plenty of women out there who wouldn’t bother getting this kind of help. But she loved their family, their daughter in particular, enough to try. Maybe even him.

“Michael . . .” She angled her body to face him more, but she didn’t scoot closer. “It wasn’t just you two that made me do what I did. It was everything.”

“But I sent you over the edge.” He couldn’t escape that fact.

She let out a shaky sigh. “Well, at least now I’m climbing back up.”

He nodded in agreement. It was a slow climb, that was for sure. But he sort of felt like he was climbing right alongside her.

“Um . . .” She paused, blinking back tears, and then mumbled, “You didn’t kill Macy, and I’m sorry for ever saying you did.”

He’d gathered that much from their session yesterday, but it was still nice to hear her say it out loud, to really lay it all out there for him.

“I know you tried to save her, and I know she was already gone,” she acknowledged, “but I just . . . I couldn’t grasp that, for some reason, with the way I was grieving. And I’m not—I’m not apologizing for my grieving . . . it just is what it is, and I couldn’t control it. But I do need to apologize for what I said, because it was wrong.” She blinked back tears. “I’m really sorry.”

Inside, he was crying tears of relief, but he wanted to hold it together on the outside. “Thank you,” he said. “But you weren’t the only one who said stuff you regret. I said some things, too. Like . . . like that thing about the miscarriage.” He couldn’t even bring himself to say it again.

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” he insisted. “I know you weren’t glad that happened, and I must’ve made you feel horrible when I said you were.”

She nodded slowly, averting her eyes.

“I never wanted to make you feel anything bad, and knowing that I have . . . it just kills me.”

“Well . . .” Finally, she scooted a little closer. Nothing much. Just an inch or so. But it was something. “I think it’s safe to say I’ve made you feel some pretty awful things, too.”

“No, it doesn’t compare.”

“Really? Because I tried to kill myself.”

Hearing her say that so bluntly sent a chill through his bones.

“How does that make you feel?”

He couldn’t deny that that made him feel horrible, that the thought that she almost willingly checked out on her family was devastating.

“Clearly we both have things to apologize for,” she said.

“Clearly,” he agreed.

“But . . . I’m glad I didn’t die.”

Again, he felt relief. Not all-encompassing relief, because he knew that this conversation wasn’t just magically fixing everything. But knowing that she was actually glad to be there, even though there were a million other places she would rather be . . . it made him feel grateful, and even hopeful.

“Not just with the pills,” she went on, “but in the car, too.”

He winced, because it was always hard to think about that night. He could still remember every single detail, every sound, every sight, every smell.

“For a long time afterwards, I felt dead,” she revealed. “But I wasn’t. Because you saved me.” She smiled tearfully, just a little, and practically whispered, “You saved my life that night, and I never even thanked you for it.”

He’d never even thought of it as saving Maria’s life, only as losing Macy’s. “Well, you saved me long before that,” he told her.

“How?”

“You just did.” He couldn’t even explain it. “And then there’s Miley, and I think she’s saved both of us.”

“Oh, yeah,” she agreed emphatically.

“We still get to watch her grow up, you know.”

She smiled. “She’s gonna be amazing, isn’t she?”

“Ah, she already is.” Maria was going to be so impressed when she came home and saw how well Miley was moving around now. She still wasn’t dancing around the house the way she used to, but if she kept going like this, she would be soon. “You know,” he said, pressing one hand to her mattress, even though he wanted to rest it on her leg, “this actually feels pretty good. I mean, I know a couple of conversations doesn’t fix everything, but . . .”

“It’s a start,” she filled in.

“Yeah.” He didn’t know where the finish line was, or if they’d ever even reach it, but at least now it felt like they were back on the right course. “So where do we go from here?”

She took in a sharp breath, held it out for a minute, and then gazed at him questioningly. “Home?” she squeaked out softly.

Home, he thought, mulling it over in his mind. We go home.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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Part 148

Postby April » Sun Jan 20, 2013 2:14 pm

So I think I will go back to posting weekly updates. I'm at the point where I've got enough written in advance. Actually, in terms of writing (not posting), I'm nearing the end of the fic. It's kind of surreal and hard to believe.


Ellie:
And while everything is not all shiny and happy again, at least a little bit of the grey is clearing up to make room for it.


It's a process, but at least they've started down the road to recovery now.

I simply love how you've weaved these complex, yet very different characters together and formed this story. I have to say, this one is ranking in my top three of must read over again.


Well, considering how long and angsty this is, that's no small task! :lol: Thanks!

Oh, and as for The Sims . . . I purchased The Sims 2 years ago, but my computer at the time was so ancient that it didn't have the necessary requirements to play it. But I found it in my closet during the summer of 2011 and installed it on my laptop . . . and the rest is history. Been playing it ever since. From what I've heard of The Sims 3, I'm not in any hurry to switch over. The Sims 3 sims are ugly! I've got some beautiful Sims 2 sims. Plus I installed a TON of custom content and I don't want to lose all of that.

Oh, yes, it's an addictive game. I think I'm going to play it after I post this update now. :lol:

Grace:
Also, I know what he said about Isabel, but I still don't trust him where she is concerned,and I think Maria needs to know that if they have problems, he won't turn to her, or anyone else.


This is a pretty extreme yet classic case of learning from your mistakes, and that is exactly what Michael has done/is doing. However, the major consequence of that mistake is that he has lost the trust of some of the most important people in his life. He's gotta earn it back.

lilah: Hey there! Good to know you're still reading.

I see your YAY and raise you a WOOHOO!

Novy:
You are one of the few people I would follow over to AA. Thanks for the quality stuff and for making this trek to AA worth our time.


Aw, you're welcome! You know, I've got a couple of ideas floating around for the stories I want to write after this one . . . and I think I can say, with confidence, that nothing else I ever write will ever dive quite this far into the Alien Abyss.

I really admire the way you went through that dark place and manage to be here looking out on the horizon and finally realistically showing us true hope. It shows how talented you are and what a big heart you have for these characters.


Wow, I hadn't realized until I read this that . . . I actually do have a heart for these characters. I care about them and detest them as if they're real people. Which is . . . kind of weird, but I suppose when you're witing a fic like this, it's kind of necessary, too.

It's strange . . . what started out as a cute little story about a girl moving in with her guy friend has evolved into this. I didn't see it coming.



Thank you AS ALWAYS for the feedback! I really cannot say that enough. :)


This isn't a music part, but I did quote some song lyrics to "Walk on the Ocean" by Toad the Wet Sprocket, which I forgot about for years but rediscovered after doing my Complete Series Rewatch of One Tree Hill this summer. Just for the record. ;)








Part 148







“So I don’t know if it’s normal to feel like that, but . . .” Kyle could barely get a coherent sentence out as he babbled about his bedroom concerns. “I mean, did you feel weird when Maria was . . .” He made a big circle with his arms and held it out in front of him like a pregnant belly. “‘Cause I know I shouldn’t, but I kinda keep wondering, what if I, like . . . hit it, you know? Now that I could, even if I wanted to, but . . . do babies have sight? Or are they like newborn cheetahs who can’t open their eyes for weeks? Is it the cheetahs who can’t do that? I don’t even know. My point is, when do babies start seeing, ‘cause I don’t want my son to see that, you know? That’s just disturbing. It’s not an attractive body part, on anyone. That kind of thing could scar a kid for life.”

Michael was only listening to bits and fragments of what Kyle was saying, but when he pieced everything together, he understood that his friend was talking about the penis. What a crisis this was.

“Am I boring you?” Kyle finally asked.

Actually, it sounded like a pretty hilarious rant, but Michael’s mind was elsewhere. “I gotta get a new bed,” he blurted.

“Uh, okay. Random, but okay.”

“Sorry, I’m kinda spacing out right now.” Michael waited while a group of elderly women outside walked by and peered in, almost as if they were about to pop in and look around. But thankfully, they just kept on walking. He wanted the customers, but he wanted to have Michael/Kyle bromantic problem-solving time more.

“What’s wrong?” Kyle asked.

“It’s just, Maria mentioned coming home, and--”

“And you need a new bed?” Kyle made a confused face.

“Well, yeah, I can’t expect her to sleep in the old one, not after Isabel and I . . .” He trailed off, figuring Kyle would understand now. “No.”

“Oh, so that bed has its own mythology now,” Kyle said. “Interesting. But you, my friend, have mucho hospital bills to pay, so you’re on a budget. How about just a new mattress instead? Same symbolic message, half the price.”

“No, I want a new bed.” It wasn’t as though he couldn’t at least afford that much.

“Alright, whatever, man,” Kyle relented. “So she’s really comin’ back, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. So you think she’s ready?”

He shrugged. “She says she is.” He could tell she’d made some huge progress over the past few weeks, but there was probably still a lot of work left to be done, and things between them were still awkward on many levels.

“You think it’s gonna be weird?” Kyle asked.

“Weirder than you having sex with your pregnant wife, I’m sure,” he joked.

“Hey!” Kyle tossed his arms in the air and laughed. “You really were listening! Wow.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“So, I know it’s sudden, but I think I’m ready. I mean, I’m not perfect; I’m still healing. But I think it’s time for me to go home and continue healing there. With my family.” Maria flapped her arms against her sides, done with her whole spiel, and tried to gauge Dr. Carlson for a reaction. Was he on a totally different page than her?

“Well, Maria, that’s a bold decision,” he said.

“Do you agree with me? Do you think I’m ready?”

“It’s really not up to me. I can’t force you to stay.”

She interpreted that as, “But you think I should.”

He folded his hands atop his desk and leaned forward. “No,” he replied. “I think you’re right. It’s time for you to go. Have you discussed it with Michael?”

“Yeah. He’s being supportive.” They wanted to give it a few days, just so they could have everything ready and not feel rushed in any way. But in no time at all, it would be time. “It’ll be weird to be home, but I think it’ll be good for me.”

Dr. Carlson smiled, and he seemed genuinely happy for her. “I think you’re right.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Thanks for coming with me,” Michael said, obediently following Tess as she expertly weaved her way back to the bedding section of Sears’s home department.

“No problem,” she chirped. “Interior design is sort of my area of expertise.”

“It’s just a new bed,” he reminded her, hoping she wouldn’t get too crazy and start talking about new paint schemes for the room or anything like that.

“No, it’s not just a new bed,” she insisted, stopping at one that caught her eye. She smoothed her hand over the frame a bit, then made a face, shook her head, and continued on. “It’s the most important fixture of the room, hence it being a bedroom.”

“That’s very wise.” Truthfully, most of the beds looked the same to him, but Maria would be able to tell the difference. And hopefully, she would be glad.

“I just can’t believe she’s coming back,” Tess went on. “I mean, I’m glad and everything, but it’s a really big deal.”

“Oh, trust me, I know. But hopefully the new bed helps.”

She glanced at him over her shoulder and mimicked, “It’s just a bed.”

“No, it’s not. Remember?”

She smiled, then stopped at another one. It was about the same height as his old one, but the frame was a slightly darker shade of wood. “What about this one?” she asked, sitting down on the mattress. She bounced up and down a bit and said, “This is nice.”

“You think?”

“I like it.”

“But would Maria?” He sat down beside her, testing the mattress out for comfort. Not too firm, not too soft. Maria had always wanted something a little softer, something you could really sink down into, but he’d always wanted something a little firmer, because he knew it was better for your back in the long run. So they’d always compromised and met in the middle with a mattress like this. Not that they’d be sharing it again anytime soon.

“Man, I wish Marty was here,” he said. “That way we could have at least one DeLuca’s opinion.”

Tess bit her bottom lip for a moment, almost as if she was contemplating saying something. “Yeah . . .” she finally said. “About him . . .”

“What?”

She turned to face him a bit. “Kyle and I didn’t tell you, but he stopped in to talk to us the other day, and he’s still really upset with you.”

“Yeah, I know.” He really regretted that he was probably never going to get his relationships with Maria’s side of the family back to the way they’d once been.

“No, like really upset,” she emphasized. “Like he hates you right now, and apparently so does Amy. Kyle got so fed up with him, he made him leave.”

“What?” Now his mistakes were affecting the relationships of other people in his family? That wasn’t right.

“Yeah, it’s hard for him to hear people trashing you. Anyway, I get why Marty’s mad at you, and I don’t know if it’s fixable; but you might wanna make some kind of effort, just to make things easier on Maria when she gets back.”

He nodded in agreement, all for making things easier on Maria, no matter how hard it was on him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When Michael walked into the Cowboy Club, he felt like he didn’t belong. And not just because it was a club for gay guys, but because . . . because he just didn’t belong anymore. Luckily Marty appeared to be the only one there, what with it being during the middle of the day and all. He was sitting at the bar, looking at what appeared to be a never-ending stack of bills. Obviously stressed.

Stress, Michael thought. Something I can relate to.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Marty said without even glancing up.

“I know,” Michael said. It was hard to miss how Marty bristled when he heard his voice. “A gay men’s club really isn’t my normal hangout anyway.”

Marty shoved the bills aside and glared at him. “What’re you doing here?”

He went up to the bar but didn’t sit down at one of the stools. “I thought we should talk.”

Marty stood up and crossed his arms over his chest. “I have nothing to say to you. Leave.”

Michael stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked around, surveying the place. It was really . . . one gigantic mess, looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in days. The bar was only half stocked, and some of the signs that were supposed to light up in neon looked more pastel. “Is the club gettin’ a lot of business?” he asked.

“Well, I’m sure it doesn’t compare to the business Isabel gets at her cock-sucking company,” Marty shot back.

Michael stiffened, still not used to getting much more than a playful jab from the man who would have been his brother-in-law. “I just asked a question,” he said.

“And I answered it.”

“No, actually, you didn’t.”

Marty grunted, threw his arms up in the air exasperatedly, and admitted, “Fine, business sucks. I’m probably gonna have to close down. You happy now?”

“I’m sorry.” Marty had never had much luck holding onto the things that were important to him in life. He deserved more than fleeting happiness. “Maybe I could help,” he suggested. “I could invest.”

“With what money?” Marty huffed.

“Okay, well . . . maybe my parents could.” He knew he was pretty much just thinking out loud, but it wasn’t a bad idea. “They’re retirement age, but they have some money.”

“Oh, right, Michael Guerin’s conservative Republican parents are gonna invest in their daughter-in-law’s gay brother’s gay club.” Marty laughed sarcastically. “Right.”

“I could talk to them,” Michael offered. “No guarantees, but . . .”

But Marty was clearly having none of it. “Don’t, okay?” he snapped. “I don’t want your help. I don’t want anything to do with you anymore.”

Michael sighed heavily, leaning against the bar, trying not to get too frustrated because he knew he deserved this. “Look, I understand why you’re so mad . . .”

“Do you really?” Marty raked his hands through his hair, turning away for a moment. Michael could hear him sniffing back tears. But when he spun back around, there was only anger. “Everything that matters to me goes away. My dad, Francis, Jimmy, Macy, this stupid club. And because of you, my little sister almost went away. Forever. And I know you all think I’ll just get over it, because I’m just Marty, and I’m just here for the comic relief, right? But it’s not that simple.”

“I never said it was.” But in truth, that’s what he’d been hoping for. “Marty, your sister’s coming home.”

“What?” Marty practically shrieked. “When?”

“Soon.”

“Well, where’s she gonna stay, with Tess and Kyle? Or me?”

Michael wasn’t sure if Marty was really that clueless, or if he was just deluding himself on purpose. “Me,” he told him. “She’s staying with me.”

The anger swept back onto Marty’s face, mixed in with disapproval.

“She’s coming home, Marty.”

“You expect her to feel at home there?”

“It’s what she wants.” If Maria had told him she wanted to stay somewhere else, he would have tried to understand. So why couldn’t Marty understand that they were at least going to try to work things out? Why couldn’t he just accept that?

“Listen,” Michael said, relenting to the fact that he wouldn’t really be able to understand Marty’s perspective, just as Marty couldn’t understand his, “if you wanna hate me for the rest of time, go ahead and hate me. But don’t make this harder on Maria.” She didn’t need to come home to a war zone, especially not one she’d feel caught in the middle of. “If you wanna be there to welcome her back, let me know.” He figured that was about as much of an olive branch as he could extend, so he left Marty to mull that over when he left the club.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria knew it wasn’t possible that she was going home with more clothing than she’d arrived at Cresthaven with—it wasn’t as if she’d gone shopping while she was there or anything. But still, she was having major problems fitting everything in her suitcase. When she’d come, Tess had been the one to pack everything up for her, and she had her clothes-folding method down to a science. Maria didn’t have the same technique, and therefore, she wasn’t having much luck getting everything to fit. She eventually just started tossing everything in, not really caring if she had to leave a top or two behind.

A knock on her door alerted her, and Ivy poked her head in. “Hey,” she said. “Just had to see it for myself. You’re really doin’ it, huh? Goin’ home.”

“Yeah.” Maria managed to zip up her suitcase, but it was bulging so much that she expected the zipper to pop off at any minute.

“When?” Ivy asked, leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest.

“Soon.”

Ivy nodded and quietly asked, “You nervous? Excited?”

Maria shrugged. “A little bit of both.”

“Ah, you’ll be fine,” Ivy assured her. “You got Michael. He seems like a perfect guy.”

Maria tensed, thinking about how many times she’d heard people say Michael was perfect, how many times she herself might have said that, and how greatly she now knew that to be untrue. “Nobody’s perfect,” she said, hopping up onto the bed. She crawled on top of her suitcase and sat on it, trying to pack it down.

“Well, he seems pretty good.” Ivy smiled, but it was a sad smile, almost as if . . . as if she were going to miss Maria.

It hadn’t occurred to her that anyone would miss her. At least not anyone from Cresthaven.

“Listen, Maria, I know it’s not like we’ll hang out or be friends after this, so I just gotta let you know, I really admire you.”

It hadn’t occurred to Maria that anyone would do that, either. “That’s because you don’t know why I’m here,” she said. A suicide attempt wasn’t anything to admire.

“I got a pretty good idea,” Ivy insisted. “I remember hearin’ about you and your family on the news. Everything you had to go through . . . kinda makes my problems seem like nothin’.”

Maria slid down off her suitcase, shaking her head. “Your problems aren’t nothing, Ivy.” Things didn’t have to make front page headlines to be a big deal.

“Thanks for sayin’ that,” Ivy said. “Anyway . . . good luck, Maria.” She smiled encouragingly, then turned and left the room.

Maria sighed deeply, wondering if Ivy was the only person who felt this way. As uncomfortable as it was to be admired, it would be way worse to be ashamed. And if she got back home and saw any signs of distrust or anger in her daughter’s eyes for ever leaving in the first place, she was going to feel shame on a whole new level.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Miley’s asleep,” Tess announced when she returned to check on the boys in the master bedroom. They were both sprawled out on the new bed, though. Kyle was lying with his head down by the foot of the bed, his mouth hanging open as he slept. “And apparently so are you two. How cozy.”

Michael yawned, placing a second pillow beneath his head to prop himself up a little. “We put it together wrong, so we had to do it all over again.”

“Hmm, who knew putting up a bedframe was so complex?” she teased. “Okay, if it can hold you two and pregnant me, it’s good to go.” She squeezed on next to Kyle and cuddled up next to him. “Sturdy,” she proclaimed.

“Oh, come on, you’re not that pregnant yet,” Michael said.

“Well, I feel that pregnant.” The bump was definitely noticeable in her everyday clothing now, but sadly she was still at the point where it could easily just be mistaken for weight gain.

“You’re still gonna get way bigger,” Michael said. “You’re gonna blow up like a tick.”

She reached across Kyle to smack her friend’s side.

“Hey!” he yelped.

“Watch it.”

“I’m just stating the facts.”

“Well, the facts suck.” She rested her head against Kyle’s shoulder and draped her arms across his abdomen. “I can’t believe I’m only four months along. It feels like it’s been four years.”

“Well, you’re almost halfway there,” Michael pointed out. “Look at it that way.”

“I guess.” She laughed a little, and Kyle stirred, but he didn’t wake up. “Man, he’s out,” she said. “Bet you didn’t think he’d be the first person to use this bed, did you?”

“No.” He yawned again, obviously struggling to keep his own eyes open. “Do you think Maria will . . . appreciate it?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “You’re the one who’s spent time with her lately. What’s she like these days?”

He thought about it for a moment, then answered, “Better. But not completely better, you know?”

“Michael,” she said softly, “none of us are completely better yet.”

He nodded in agreement.

Suddenly, Kyle snorted and moved around, grumbling, “I wanna butter your muffin,” in his sleep.

Michael gave Tess an inquisitive look. She covered her mouth to hold in her giggles.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maria lay in bed the next morning while the alarm clock beeped. It was a shrill sound, completely unpleasant, but she was hesitant to reach over and turn it off; because when she did, the day would officially begin, and it was a big, important day.

She closed her eyes and let the beeping fade into the background as the memories came to the forefront.

****

“Okay, keep your eyes closed,” Michael said, grabbing her hand to help her out of the car. “Don’t peek.”

“I’m not,” Maria insisted, pretending to stumble as he led her forward.

“Yes, you are.”

She opened her eyes and conceded, “Okay, I totally am.” She looked around an unfamiliar neighborhood with unfamiliar, but very nice, houses. “What’re we doing here?”

“We’re home,” he announced, motioning grandly to a light-blue two-story house with white trim. The small front yard was adorned with flowers, and there was a soccer-mom type van in the driveway.

“What?” she asked in astonishment. They’d been looking for a house for a few months now, but this looked way too nice for what they could currently afford.

“Welcome to 522 Alvarado Street,” he continued, leading her up the front yard to the door. “Somebody told me this is the place where everything’s better and everything’s safe.”

She smiled. “Those are song lyrics.”

“Oh, but fitting lyrics, because it’s a nice neighborhood,” he said. “Very safe. Very clean. Perfect place to raise a family. Or in our case, begin one.”

She smiled, loving the sound of that. “Michael . . .”

He stopped in the middle of the front yard and turned to face her, holding both her hands in his. “I was driving home last night, and they were having an open house here. So I took a look at the place, and it’s everything we want in a house. It’s old, but it doesn’t look old. And they really have it looking nice inside.”

“It’s beautiful, even on the outside,” she acknowledged. “But is it even in our price range?”

“No, but my mom and dad agreed to help us out for awhile, and it’s in
their price range.” He grinned excitedly. “So there’s another open house going on today. If you walk through and love the place as much as I do, we’re puttin’ an offer down. We’re movin’ in.”

Her whole body tingled in anticipation. She squealed in delight and scurried toward the house, knowing in her heart without a shadow of a doubt that this was indeed the place.


****

Maria finally reached over and turned off the alarm when someone knocked on her door.

“Knock, knock,” her favorite nurse chirped, poking her head into the room. “You ready to go home?”

She sighed nervously, praying to God she was.








TBC . . .

-April
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LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.

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Part 149

Postby April » Sun Feb 03, 2013 2:31 pm

Alright, sorry I couldn't crank this update out last week like I wanted to. I will try to update next week as well, but no guarantees. I feel like, this time of year, I always end up spending all weekend at wrestling meets. :lol:

Thank you for the feedback:

Ellie

Grace

Novy



Well, it's been awhile, but I'm dropping by with some music today: "Coming Home" by Skylar Grey. The chorus of this is on a popular Diddy song from a few years ago, but I find her solo version much better. Click on :) when you see it if you'd like to listen.








Part 149








“Daddy, come play with me!”

Michael sat down on the couch to tie his shoes. “Oh, sweetie, I can’t,” he said. “I have to go do something. But Aunt Tess and Uncle Kyle are coming over to watch you. They’ll play.”

Miley picked up a brush and started to drag it through her Hannah Montana Barbie’s tangled mane of hair.

“Miley, I need to talk to you for a minute,” he said, sliding down off the couch so he could sit next to her on the floor. She just kept playing, though. “Can you put the doll down?”

“Play,” she said again.

“No, I need you to listen to me. Put the doll down,” he said, being a little firmer this time. Reluctantly, she did and turned to look at him expectantly.

“Your mom’s coming home today,” he told her.

Her face lit up. “Mama?”

“Yeah, Mama.”

But just as suddenly as she’d smiled, she frowned. “Where’d she go?”

“Remember, I told you she was sick and went away to get better. And she is better now, but she’s still not all the way better.” He wished there was a way to tell her everything without scaring her to death, because then she’d really understand; but for now, it was too much for her to understand, so this vague explanation was just going to have to do. “She might still get sad sometimes,” he warned, “and there might be days where she just doesn’t feel like playing. But you’re gonna help her a lot. You’re gonna help her feel happy whenever she’s feeling sad, because you make everyone feel happy.”

She picked up her doll again and mumbled, “I know.”

“You know, huh? Come here.” He lifted her up carefully and set her down in his lap, hugging her close. They’d done okay these past six weeks, just the two of them. But he was ready for it to be three again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Now this is the medicine Maria’s been taking.” Dr. Carlson held up a small pill bottle for Michael to see. Inside, there were a few dozen little capsules, half blue and half yellow. “Two of these, twice a day. Usually morning and dinnertime works best. But always try to keep them at least six hours apart.” He put the bottle in a bag and stapled it shut, handing it to Michael.

“Are these . . . painkillers?” he asked fearfully. He didn’t want Maria to get mixed up with those again.

“No, anti-depressants,” Dr. Carlson clarified. “But like all medicines, they can be addictive. Now, Maria’s overdose wasn’t a result of addiction, but you’ll still want to monitor her. Just in case.”

Michael nodded nervously. This was all a little overwhelming. It was really hitting home that Maria wasn’t the same old Maria yet. He was still going to need to take care of her and help her get back on her feet.

“She’s done fine with this prescription so far,” the doctor assured him, almost as if he could sense his concern, “so I don’t foresee any problems. But let me know if you develop any concerns. Now, if you would just sign here . . .” He slid a paper across the table, handed Michael a pen, and pointed to a blank line at the bottom of the page.

“What is this?” Michael asked, gripping the pen hesitantly.

“By signing there, you’re assuming all the responsibility for administering Maria’s medication once she returns home. Basically we need you to sign there to document that we’re no longer responsible for it.”

“Oh. Okay.” He scrawled his name sloppily and slid the form back to the doctor. He unstapled the prescription bag and peered inside cautiously. “So am I not supposed to let her anywhere near these?”

“I wouldn’t,” Dr. Carlson advised. “Just in case. I’m actually hoping we can start to reduce her dosage soon. When you two come in for a check-up in two weeks, I’ll see if I think she’s ready to drop down to two pills per day. In a month or two, she might be able to go without any medication altogether.”

“I hope so.” He knew the pills were probably a good thing, but he didn’t like the thought of Maria putting any more of those things in her body, not after . . .

Not after.

“Michael, it’s perfectly natural to be nervous,” Dr. Carlson assured him. “But what you’re doing is very commendable. I’ve seen many men in your position who don’t stick around.”

“Well, it’s Maria. I’d do anything for her, so . . .” He trailed off and shrugged. Of course, she might not have even been there if it weren’t for him, for what he’d done. Or maybe it had been inevitable. Maybe she would’ve ended up there no matter what. He didn’t know which was worse.

“Then she’s lucky to have you.” Dr. Carlson smiled.

He wondered if she felt the same way.

Once he finished up with Dr. Carlson, he made the now familiar trek to Maria’s room and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” she called.

He walked inside to find her trying to zip up the second of two full suitcases. Somehow, she was leaving with more than she’d arrived with. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey.” She grimaced as she yanked on the zipper. It still wouldn’t shut. “Did they make you sign a mountain of forms, too?”

“Not a mountain. More like a hill.”

“Well . . .” She shrugged, giving up on the suitcase when it was only halfway zipped. “Mine was a mountain.”

He didn’t doubt that. Maria had had to overcome a lot of mountains lately. “Got everything packed up?” he asked.

“I think so,” she said. “Oh, wait, my toothbrush.” She darted back into the bathroom.

He sidled up next to her suitcase and pressed down on the top of it, pushing the sides of the zipper close enough so that he could get it zipped shut. “Does it feel weird to be leaving?” he asked.

She came back out with her toothbrush in hand. “Not as weird as it felt to come in the first place.” She smiled when she saw that he’d zipper her suitcase and tossed it into the side pocket of her duffle bag instead. “Think we can get it all in one trip?”

“Yeah, just load me up like a little pack mule.” He grabbed hold of the biggest, heaviest suitcase with his left hand and held out his shoulder for the bag.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

She hesitantly slung the duffle bag over his right shoulder.

“Keep it comin’,” he urged, holding out his hand for the last suitcase.

She laughed a little and handed it to him. He was completely loaded down and knew he probably would be a little winded by the time he carried this all the way down to the car. But it didn’t hurt to impress her a little bit. And making her smile and laugh was always a good thing.

“There,” he said. “See, we can do this.” And just to reiterate it and make sure she really understood, he said it again. “We can do this.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

( :) )

Maria gazed out the window as the world passed her by. Streets she’d driven hundreds of times, houses and buildings she’d gone past every day . . . they all seemed sort of new. But in a way, so old and familiar, almost as if it was just another Sunday afternoon and she and Michael were just running errands.

When they got closer to their neighborhood, the butterflies in her stomach started to fly around harder. As excited as she was to be home, she was so nervous about what would await her. What would people say? What would they think about her, or feel? There were really only a select few people who she cared about, and the main one was Miley.

“Does she know I’m coming?” she asked Michael, casting a quick glance at him.

“Yeah,” he replied, keeping his eyes locked on the road. “She’s excited.”

She looked back out the window, squinting up at a sun-lit sky. How was it that headlights could seem brighter than the sun? “Who else knows?” she asked.

“Tess and Kyle, obviously. Your brother,” he answered. “I haven’t told your mom. She and I aren’t really talking much.”

“Sorry.” She knew firsthand how tough and rigid her mom could be. Up until a few years ago, even their mother-daughter relationship had been pretty distant and strained.

“Not your fault,” he mumbled, turning onto the most beautiful street in the neighborhood, appropriately called Flora Avenue. It was where the children’s park was, and it was a signal that home was only a few blocks away.

“What if she doesn’t like me anymore?” she fretted somewhat to herself and somewhat to him.

“Who, your mom?”

“Miley.” Maybe it was a stupid question to ask, but she didn’t feel that stupid for asking it.

“No, she loves you,” he promised her, taking another right turn. “She’s using a cane now.”

Maria’s head snapped towards him. “A cane?” She couldn’t picture it.

“Yeah. It’s a good thing, trust me.”

It just seemed so unnatural. “I didn’t even know they made canes that small.” Canes were for old people, and Miley was so young. But then again, Miley had gone through a lot more in her three and a half short years than most people went through in a lifetime.

Even though she was preoccupied trying to picture Miley walking around with a cane, she didn’t miss the last turn that took them onto Alvarado Street, and she held her breath when their house came into view. It looked almost the same as it had the day they’d bought it, back when things had been simpler, even though they still hadn’t been very simple at all.

“Well, here we are,” he said pulling into the driveway.

“I’m so glad,” she nearly whispered, because even though she was nervous, this was home, and there was nowhere else she’d rather be. Cresthaven was a good place. She had no doubt it was exactly where she’d needed to be for the past six weeks. But this was where she needed to be now.

She got out of the car and let out a heavy breath, her nerves kicking into high gear as the front door opened and her family came out. Tess and Kyle were waiting there with Miley. Kyle was holding Miley, and she had her face pressed against his shoulder, eyes only halfway open as though she’d just woken up from a nap. When she saw Maria, though, they snapped all the way open.

Oh my god, she thought, holding one hand over her pounding heart. It had been six weeks. Six weeks of not seeing her, not even talking to her. Six weeks of wondering how she was doing and wishing they’d been able to be together, wishing she’d been the strong mother this strong little girl deserved.

Six weeks, and it all came down to this.

“Mama!” Miley exclaimed, her face lighting up. Kyle set her down on her own two feet, and much to Maria’s shock and amazement, she started to walk forward. All on her own. No crutches, and no cane. Just Miley Guerin and her own two feet, one right in front of another. It was a slow process. It took her a long time just to get from the porch to the driveway. But when she did, there was such pride on her face, and Maria felt such pride in her heart for her. It was just walking, but it was so much more than that, and it was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen.

“Oh, sweetie . . .” She knelt down and opened up her arms, hugging her when she was close enough. From the moment she wrapped her arms around her daughter, tears stung her eyes. “I missed you so much.” She remembered holding her for the first time, touching her fingertips through the incubator while she was in intensive care. She remembered it all so clearly, in combination with what she was experiencing now, and she didn’t know how on earth she had ever swallowed those pills, why she’d ever been willing to leave her behind.

When she finally released her, she had to resist the urge to scoop her up in her arms again. She stood and looked down at her, taking a moment to just appreciate that gorgeous, bright little smile. “Look at you,” she said, teasing, “How old are you, sixteen?”

“No, I’m three and a half.” She grinned.

“Well, you look like you got older. My big girl.” She rubbed her head, messing up her hair a little bit. She smiled at her friends and motioned them forward, eager to reunite with them, too.

“Hey, Maria,” Tess said.

“Hey.” Maria hugged her, too, blinking back tears. “Oh my god, I’m so happy to see you.” All her life, she and Tess had been there for each other. Twenty-five years of friendship could survive anything.

“I’m way happier to see you,” Tess claimed. “It’s just not the same around here without you.”

“Yeah, it’s good to have you back,” Kyle said, taking his turn at a hug. “Hey, I want you to know, I help put together your new bed, and it’s heavenly. I slept like a baby last night.”

“My new bed?” She cast Michael an inquisitive look.

“Yeah, it’s . . . new.” He cringed. “I hope that’s okay.”

Considering how appalling it had been to know that he and Isabel had been together in their bed . . . “That’s more than okay.” It was exactly what she needed.

“You wanna come inside?” Tess asked.

“Sure.” She tapped Miley’s shoulder and said, “Lead the way.” They followed along behind her. Slowly.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Michael couldn’t believe what he was seeing. His little girl, the same little girl who had sat on a deserted road at the beginning of a horrible year, screaming that she couldn’t feel her legs, was using them to walk in the house. She still had a long way yet to go; she wasn’t going to be enrolling in dance class for years to come, if ever. But she had moved on from that car accident more than all of the rest of them combined. He felt like he could learn something from her.

He stayed behind to unload Maria’s things from the car. He decided to haul it up in two separate trips this time, though. He’d just slung the duffle bag over his shoulder and shut the trunk when another car pulled up behind his in the driveway. Marty stepped out, making every effort to not look at Michael as he came forward.

“Hey,” he mumbled, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “So I thought about what you said, and . . .” He whimpered. “I just really missed my sister.”

Michael nodded, realizing what a big step it was for him to just be there right now, for him to have accepted his invitation to come be a part of this day. “Well, why don’t you go say hi to her?” he suggested. “She just got back.”

Marty smiled a little, finally looking Michael in the eye, and walked past him, heading inside.

Michael breathed a sigh of relief. It was a start.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The entertainment for the afternoon ended up being board games. They started out with Kyle’s favorite, Whack-a-Mole, and somehow ended up at Scrabble by the time night fell. Since only four people could play, Maria teamed up with Tess. Marty played solo, as did Kyle, and Michael sat out in order to help Miley.

“Okay,” Tess whispered to Maria, “how is it possible that a three year-old is beating us?”

Maria shrugged. “Apparently she’s just smarter.” Michael wasn’t even having to help her out that much.

“I thought you were bad at math, not spelling,” Tess teased.

“I guess I’m bad at both.” It didn’t matter, though. Even if she lost horribly, it was nice to just be able to spend time with the people she cared about. This was what she’d longed for the most during her entire stay at Cresthaven, just spending time.

“Okay, this is the only thing I can do,” Kyle announced, picking up a single letter square off his tray. He reluctantly set an ‘i’ down on the left side of a ‘t.’

“Seriously, Kyle?” Tess whined. “It? That’s, like, one of the words people use at the end of the game when they have nothing else to do.”

Kyle whirled his hands about dramatically. “Tess, you don’t even know . . . if you saw my letters . . .”

“Oh, I’m sure they’re not that bad.”

“On a scale of one to ten . . . they suck. I have, like, one vowel left, and that’s all.”

Marty cackled in delight. “Well, Kylie, I for one find your hopeless, last-place gameplay adorable, especially because it helps push me even further into first place.” He placed ‘ex’ before ‘it’ and clapped his hands excitedly. “Yay.”

“Oh, no,” Tess groaned. “And that’s a double letter score on the x? Are you freakin’ kidding me? Thanks a lot, Kyle!” Normally she didn’t get quite so passionate about board games.

“What? I didn’t know he had the x!” Kyle wailed. “I’m not psychic.”

“Well, maybe you should be.”

“What? Are you even listening to yourself? You’re so crazy!”

“Oh, really? I’m crazy?” She looked like she was about to snap his head off.

“No, your hormones are crazy. Not you, your hormones.”

Maria laughed at their wacky banter. “I missed this.” Nothing at Cresthaven had been this entertaining. Or effortless. This was effortlessly entertaining. Maria hadn’t enjoyed herself this much in a long time.

Tess took a deep breath to calm herself down, then proclaimed. “I’m over it. Miley, it’s your turn.”

Miley stared long and hard at her letters, then bit her bottom lip in concentration. She looked up at Michael and began to ask, “How do you spell . . .” but then trailed off.

“Just sound it out, whatever it is,” he urged.

Again, she stared at her letters. She looked so cute when she was deep in thought.

“What does she have?” Maria asked Michael.

He just shrugged in response.

Moments later, Miley’s face lit up with enthusiasm as she lay an ‘e’ above the ‘x’ Marty had just put down. And then, much to the horror of everyone but the delight of herself, she put an ‘s’ right above the ‘e.’

Everyone stared at the word in stunned silence. Sex. Seriously?

“Sex is a cake,” Miley mumbled, suddenly looking embarrassed.

Play along, Maria told herself. That cake lie was buying them at least a year when it came to the dreaded sex talk. “That’s exactly right, Miley.”

“And a very tasty one at that,” Kyle added. “Good job, stud.”

Miley giggled, but just as soon after, she let out a big yawn and started to rub her eyes.

“Uh-oh, somebody’s tired,” Tess noted.

“And somebody’s crazy,” Kyle muttered.

Tess shot him a warning glare. “We might just have to call it a night.”

Michael put his arm around Miley and lifted her onto his lap carefully. “You tired, sweetie?” he asked.

She nodded sleepily and pressed her face against his shoulder.

“Yeah? Let’s get you to bed. Say goodnight.”

“‘Night,” she mumbled, mustering up enough strength to wave at everyone.

“Goodnight, Miley,” Tess and Kyle and Marty all said as Michael carried her upstairs. Maria smiled, glad that she didn’t have to say goodnight. Every night in Cresthaven, she’d said goodnight to Miley’s photograph. But now that she was back home, she could peek into that bedroom anytime she wanted to and see her beautiful little girl.

“Well, little sis,” Marty said, clearing off the Scrabble board, “did you get third place or second from last?”

“We had bad letters,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t even wanna hear it,” Kyle snapped, turning his tray around. “I had the J, the Z, the Q, two K’s.”

“We just had tons of M’s,” Maria said, turning her tray around as well.

“Ah, M’s aren’t so bad,” Kyle said. “Besides, you guys were a team. You could’ve figured something out.”

“Maybe my crazy hormones wouldn’t let me.” Tess smirked.

Kyle whimpered. “And that’s my cue to hide and beg for mercy.”

“Yeah, you guys go on ahead,” Maria told them. “I’ll put all this away.”

“You sure?” Marty asked.

“Yeah, it's fine.” They were going to see each other again tomorrow, too. That would be nice.

“Hey, you know, this was fun,” Marty declared. “We should do stuff like this more often.”

“Yeah, we will,” she promised. Now that she was back, she was going to make more of an effort to spend quality time with her family. She still had a lot of good family members left.

After Marty, Tess, and Kyle had gone, Maria put all the games from the day away. She glanced at the clock. It was only a little after 9:00, and she wasn’t really that tired, but she’d probably just try to go to bed. With Miley nodding off, it would just be her and Michael now, and that wasn’t going to be quite as effortless as family game night had been.

She headed upstairs, willing herself not to feel weird about walking down that hallway again, forcing herself to not think too hard about opening up that door to the bedroom and seeing Michael and Isabel together. She didn’t hesitate or make too big of a deal out of it. She just walked in and stopped in the doorway when she saw the new bed. It was a regular double bed, just like the old one, but it was a little taller, and Michael had gotten a new white bedspread and gold accent pillows.

She didn’t want to, but she thought about the old bed, and when she thought about the old bed, she saw them. Him on top of her. Hands everywhere.

She winced, shaking her head. Dr. Carlson had told her to expect this. She couldn’t just forget that it happened any more than Michael could. It happened. And hopefully she would start to remember it less and less, but from time to time probably for all time, that image would pop into her mind. She would just have to live with it. They both would.

She crossed the bedroom and sat down on the side of the bed. She bounced a little to test the mattress. It was nice. Hopefully she would sleep well. She sure had plenty of room to sprawl out, and she had the covers all to herself.

The door to Miley’s bedroom squeaked as it shut, and Michael came down the hall a moment later. He, too, stopped in the doorway, and leaned against the frame, arms folded across his chest. “Well, Miley’s out,” he said.

“Did you already check for monsters?”

“No, but she did.”

She frowned, confused.

“That’s her new thing,” he explained. “She checks for monsters in our room now because she wants us to be safe.”

Maria smiled. “Oh, she is the sweetest, bravest thing.” In the back of her mind, ‘our room’ and ‘us’ were ringing out over and over again. Would it ever be that again? For the past six weeks, it had been his room, and even though they hadn’t talked about it, there was sort of his silent understanding that it would just be hers now that she was back.

“Well, I put most of your stuff away,” he said, gesturing towards the closet, “so you should be all set.”

“Thanks.” It was nice not to have to do all the unpacking. He was definitely trying to spoil her.

“I hope you like the new bed. Tess helped me pick it out.”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” she said. “Comfy.” She didn’t remember their old bed feeling so big, though. But then again, maybe that was just because he’d always been in it with her.

He remained standing in the doorway for a few more awkward seconds, his eyes locked on her. Then he said, “Alright, well . . . I’ll see you tomorrow,” and reached out towards the doorknob.

“Yeah.” This was so weird. She couldn’t even look at him.

Slowly, he pulled the door towards him, looking a little reluctant to go. “I missed you,” he finally mumbled.

She stared straight down at the carpet, and by the time she finally said, “I missed you . . .” the door was already shut and he was already gone.

She sighed sadly. As enjoyable as these upcoming days were going to be, the nights were all going to be painful like this.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The couch wasn’t going to be so bad. Sure, the middle cushion sank down a little further than it should have, but it was comfy as could be, and it was long enough that Michael’s feet wouldn’t hang too far over the edge. He brought down his favorite pillow and a blanket just in case he got cold, and he knew he could fall asleep there. No problem.

Except for the knowledge that Maria was right above him. That was a problem. Because he wanted to be in that room with her, even though he knew he couldn’t be. It was way too soon for that. But maybe someday, someday in the not too distant future . . .

No, he couldn’t get ahead of himself.

He fluffed up his pillow and lay down, sighing heavily. Yep, this would be fine. He wouldn’t get much sleep tonight on account of it being Maria’s first night back, but tomorrow he’d be even more tired, and then he’d doze off without problem. The couch was fine. It was just . . . fine.

He reached over to the end table and shut the lights off.









TBC . . .

-April
Image
LOVE IS MICHAEL AND MARIA.


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